No. 13 USC got its running game going at last.
One week after rushing for just 26 yards in a crushing seven-point loss at Stanford, the Trojans bounced back with 296 yards on the ground Saturday in a 27-9 win over California, their ninth consecutive win over the Golden Bears.
In front of an announced crowd of 83,421 on a muggy afternoon at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, USC saw its pair of running backs trudge all over a Cal front seven with 158 yards coming from junior Silas Redd and 115 by way of senior Curtis McNeal, the first time it had two players each rush for more than 100 yards in a single game since a 2008 contest at Washington State.
“It’s the offensive line,” McNeal said. “It was all the offensive line. They opened up holes for me and Silas and we just hit them.”
USC (3-1, 1-1) would post nearly 500 yards in total offense, but for a change, a majority of them came on the ground as it made a concerted effort to reenergize its running game, which had not only struggled at various points earlier in the season but had been seemingly neglected as well.
On just the third play from scrimmage, McNeal took the handoff from senior quarterback Matt Barkley to race down the south sidelines before being knocked out at the 4-yard line. Although it would fail to score on the drive following an interception from Barkley two players later, the tone was set early: USC was going to run. So it finished with 153 rushing yards over the first two quarters to grab a 17-3 halftime lead.
“The game was won at the line of scrimmage,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin. “That’s really the story of the day: up front.”
To give its offensive line a boost, USC played a bit of musical chairs with its front five. After being sidelined the week prior due to an ankle injury, senior Khaled Holmes returned to the lineup to start at center. Meanwhile, senior Abe Markowitz replaced sophomore Marcus Martin at left guard, while sophomore Aundrey Walker, who started the first three games, rotated with freshman Max Tuerk at left tackle.
Kiffin had opened up the competition at left tackle earlier in the week after expressing displeasure with Walker’s effort against in the team’s Pac-12 opener against Stanford.
“It got some fire under my butt,” said Walker, who did eventually play most of the snaps during the second half. “I liked it. It got me to work harder, to get better.”
As controlling as its offensive line was, perhaps, the Trojans’ defensive line was even more impressive. Led by junior defensive end Morgan Breslin, as well as the return of a fully healthy senior defensive end Wes Horton, they would record seven sacks, pressuring Cal quarterback Zach Maynard who would complete just 18 of his 33 passes, handicapped by two interceptions.
“They’re coming around,” USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said, when asked about the young unit’s progress. “They’ve done some good things. They still have some things to get better at. We were more productive than we have been, though. We made some big plays.”
Breslin, in particular, had a few big plays. The junior college transfer led the group with three sacks, the most for any USC player since Rey Maualuga had three against Illinois in the 2008 Rose Bowl. Horton would also record his first sack of the season during the second quarter.
“He’s a natural pass rusher,” Horton said of his teammate, Breslin. “He has a great mindset of taking it from the film room onto the field. He just keeps getting better and better every week.”
USC has held Cal (1-3, 0-1) to nine points or fewer in five of their last seven meetings. Over that span, the Golden Bears, who failed to score a touchdown on Saturday, have averaged a mere 10.1 points per game.
“That is an explosive offense, and at the end of the day we won it up front,” Kiffin reiterated. “I’m extremely proud of our players. Throughout the week a lot of people were trying to get in and tear them apart. They did a great job of preparing.”