In the waning moments of USC’s 27-9 victory over California on Saturday, the “Twitterverse” exploded with harsh commentary.
No, it wasn’t about senior quarterback Matt Barkley’s pair of interceptions. It wasn’t about the team’s nearly 300 rushing yards or the fact that the defense didn’t give up a single touchdown.
No, most of the attention centered on senior center Khaled Holmes. More specifically, the criticism dealt with the fact that he left the field with an injury again after writhing on the ground in pain.
Now, we don’t know specifics, but given the fact that Holmes left the Syracuse game with assistance from a cart, it’s safe to assume the injuries were related, although we can’t say for sure. Though many on Twitter lauded Holmes for playing through the injury, more of the comments were negative.
Namely, they were attacking USC for letting him play.
I understand where people are coming from. No one ever wants to see a player get hurt, especially one like Holmes, a team captain and a future NFL Draft pick. It would have made sense to sit him in a game like this; there is a lot of season left and Holmes needs to be healthy for the “big games” like Washington and Oregon. If Holmes is out for an extended period of time, things could take a turn for the worse.
But the decision to play Holmes, even given the fact that he left the game in obvious pain, was one USC needed. Last week, without Holmes, the Trojans were completely manhandled on the offensive line by Stanford’s defensive front seven. They ran for less than 30 yards on the day and Barkley was sacked four times. For perspective, he was sacked seven times all of last season.
USC needed to make a statement. They needed to be physical. They needed to be tough. They needed to run the ball down someone’s throat.
Senior running back Curtis McNeal ran for 115 yards while junior Silas Redd ran for 158. In total, the Trojans ran for 296 yards. Barkley wasn’t sacked once. The offensive line got a push that was clearly not there in Palo Alto.
USC’s offense had to physically dominate an opponent to show that they still had a chance in the Pac-12 race and on a national level. Holmes provided that. Do I think the Trojans could have beaten Cal without Holmes? Absolutely. USC is too talented. But it wouldn’t have been the type of win that they needed. The Trojans needed to dominate the game, and while the scoreboard might not show it, they did. They manhandled Cal like Stanford manhandled USC the week before.
And it was in large part because of Holmes.
If Holmes doesn’t play for a while, I might look stupid for praising the decision to play him Saturday. If he misses time, there’s a chance the Trojans lose more games and fall out of the national title picture.
But during a season where things were hanging in the balance after a tough loss,and where things could have turned sour for USC if the offense hadn’t come out with a good performance, Khaled Holmes was there to make sure that the ship was righted.
And there was no way that he was going to make that sort of a difference watching from the sideline. For all we know, this win could have saved USC’s season. At least, it did for now. And without Holmes, it wouldn’t have been the same, regardless of any outcome.
USC had to win with toughness and raw physicality. A finesse win was not going to cut it.
And for that, I cannot fault the Trojans for playing Holmes. In fact, I applaud them. Kiffin and company knew what they had to do to make a statement to save their season. They had to be nasty on the offensive line. And the only way to do that was with Holmes on the field, regardless of injury.
I certainly hope Holmes isn’t out for any extended period of time. ESPN’s Brett McMurphy reported that he was told by Khaled’s brother Alex that he “just tweaked his ankle,” and that he’ll be “OK.”
But regardless of what happens, his play Saturday set the tone for the Trojans for the rest of the season: Barkley might get the headlines, but offensive line play and the running game are where the battles will ultimately be won.
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