One of the moments from last Thursday’s showdown between USC and California — one which will only continue to reinforce outdated notions — remains a fourth-down play in the opening minutes.
Facing a fourth-and-goal from its eight-yard line on its first drive of the game, USC lined up in a rather unusual formation and quickly snapped the ball to senior tight end Rhett Ellison, who was lined up to the left of the offensive line.
But Ellison fumbled the ball and Cal recovered. The game was still knotted up at zero. The Trojans’ momentum was essentially gone. The reset button was pressed.
“That’s no fun,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said when asked why he chose not to kick a more conventional 25-yard field goal. “We’re on ESPN; we’ve got to do something.”
Though the comments made in jest were attempted to elicit a few laughs, they’ve come to assume a larger significance: Kiffin and USC are not just bold, they’re brash.
The chant “Big Balls Pete” was recited so often throughout the last decade that the expectation is that Kiffin, as well, wears the same pants as his predecessor.
But they’re different.
On Thursday, nothing about USC, fourth-and-goal play aside, was particularly unconventional. USC ran the ball 37 times; it passed the ball 35 times. It kicked extra points, too. Perhaps, most importantly, it didn’t turn it over — Cal did on five different occasions.
Nobody will admit it, but Kiffin and company have to love playing Cal. It would seem so anyway.
The Golden Bears haven’t beaten USC since 2003 — a triple overtime victory over the Trojans in Berkeley — when Aaron Rodgers was under center. It’s been a while — eight years in fact. Junior quarterback Matt Barkley was in the seventh grade. Kiffin was the Trojans’ wide receivers coach.
Jeff Tedford, who took over as Cal’s coach in 2002, has beaten USC just once.
During the last four games, USC has won by a combined margin of 125-29. In fact, only once during that span has Cal posted double-digit point totals — 14 in last season’s loss.
In turn, USC did everything it needed to do against Cal. It didn’t lose. It played it safe. It protected the ball and it watched the Golden Bears seemingly self-destruct.
It didn’t need to call pass plays on third-and-18. It didn’t need specialized two-point conversion attempts, either.
All it had to do was watch quarterback Zach Maynard try to beat them and he couldn’t. He completed just 58 percent of his passes without a touchdown. He threw three interceptions. He fumbled on his team’s first offensive series.
It was a performance for Cal that mirrored that of Kevin Riley a year ago when the then-senior quarterback completed less than 50 percent of his passes in addition to two interceptions.
“Mistakes, turnovers, you can’t beat a good football team like USC when you turn the ball over five times,” Tedford said. “We just need to find a way to put it all together.”
The secret to beating Cal — although it’s not much of a secret these days — certainly appears to be letting Cal self-destruct. Cal commits turnovers. It commits penalties. It somehow manages to give a game away.
USC emerged victorious by a three-touchdown margin, though you wouldn’t have noticed.
Most fans, most media types, mostly everyone, wanted style points. They wanted USC to not only limit an opponent to less than 10 points — the first time since November 2009 — but put on a record-setting offensive display akin to its Oct. 1 performance against Arizona.
During the weekend, No. 1 LSU won 38-7, No. 2 Alabama won 52-7, No. 3 Oklahoma won 47-17 and No. 4 Wisconsin won 59-7.
But the Trojans aren’t a top-five team. They have flaws. The depth of talent isn’t there.
None of that, however, warrants an obituary.
USC is 5-1.
It hasn’t played the top teams on its schedule in Oregon or Stanford, sure, but a winning percentage of .800 and a tie for first place in the Pac-12 South isn’t necessarily something to shrug off, either, especially at the midway point of the season.
With limitations, the Trojans aren’t going to beat any team by 50 points, but 10 wins this season is certainly attainable by playing it safe.
The Trojans didn’t turn it over Thursday. Cal did and did often. Being conservative, offensively anyway, isn’t flashy. It isn’t going to wow most voters — USC is still three spots out of the Associated Press top-25 poll.
But if USC is still scouring for a recipe for success in the hopes of besting last season’s win total, this should work out just fine.
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