The bounce is back.
USC’s dancing and chest-thumping on the sideline may be nothing new for the fans or players, yet each hop and step seemed more emphatic than the moves the Trojans made in their sluggish first four games of the year.
And for a USC team that had not lived up to its own standard of play, Saturday’s 30-3 romp against Cal was a welcome demonstration of the Trojans’ confidence.
The match at Memorial Stadium was an exhibition of swagger against reticence, with USC embodying the side of certitude. And though the Trojans have never lacked self-assurance in their approach, the blowout in Berkeley was the first time this year that the team played like it knew the outcome was predestined.
“We’ve known we were capable of that, but it’s been a long time coming,” USC coach Pete Carroll said.
This was the USC that television pundits had promised fans — long touchdowns from the offense, turnovers from the defense and gutsy calls from the coaching staff. This time, it all started with the stars.
As USC’s starting quarterback, freshman Matt Barkley has had to be a leader by default. But on Saturday he showed how he’s taken on the team image — and vice versa.
Barkley told reporters earlier in the week that he didn’t think Cal’s crowd would be a factor after enduring the raucous noise at Ohio Stadium.
The Cal student section took offense and distributed fliers with the quote, instructing fans to make Barkley eat his words. One of the sheets of paper even made it into the signal-caller’s helmet before the game.
“I thought about trying to pump up the crowd when we were on offense, but I don’t think it would have worked,” Barkley said.
Not that the USC offense needed much pumping up — 457 yards and 30 points was more than enough for a Trojans’ attack that still left plenty of points out on the field.
“The way the offense is moving around is really starting to feel familiar to us, like the way we did it in the past,” Carroll said. “We’re doing it with confidence, but it’s just taken us a while.”
With Barkley allowed to throw downfield and test an occasionally suspect Cal secondary, USC’s passing attack showed it can pick up yards in large chunks.
“I think they’ve had that faith this whole time, but we’ve decided to open it up now. We’ll open it up whenever we need to,” Barkley said.
The faith shown in the offense may not be enough for those still expecting the offense to produce as it did when Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush were around, but consider USC’s opponent on Saturday before filing a formal complaint.
Despite entering the game with the Pac-10’s most productive offense, Cal coach Jeff Tedford looked like he was holding his breath on every play.
Somewhere along the line, Tedford forgot that he could actually give the ball to his most talented player instead of only using him as a decoy. Cal tailback Jahvid Best only touched the ball on 16 plays and disappeared for large stretches of the game.
“It was frustrating,” Best said repeatedly while shaking his head.
Even on their home field, the Bears were terrified to take chances. Down 20-0 in the waning seconds of the first half, Tedford elected to kick a field goal on 2nd-and-10. Fans booed the decision as the kicking unit trotted out to the field and weren’t too thrilled when they saw the field goal sail wide right.
By the second half, the team looked as deflated as its cheering sections did. Instead of running out onto the field for the third quarter, Cal players looked like they were filing out of an office building during a fire drill.
“When you get on them early, it’s tough for the crowd to stay in it,” redshirt junior wide receiver Damian Williams said. “They just get demoralized.”
Given Cal’s shakiness, it’s hard to tell what the Trojans took away from the win. The Golden Bears were once mentioned as a Rose Bowl contender, but at this point, they might settle for a bowl sponsored by a manufacturer of men’s grooming and fragrance products — I’m looking at you, Brut Sun Bowl.
Regardless of the opponent, USC showed how difficult of a team it is to beat when it’s not stumbling over its own feet with penalties and turnovers.
“I think we showed tonight why we’re one of the best teams in the country,” Williams said.
USC still has plenty to improve upon — third-down conversions still aren’t optimal, and three drives inside the 10 only resulted in field goals. But with a bye week on the horizon, the team will get a good look at its flaws.
And if Saturday was any indication, the Trojans should have enough hop in them to bounce back from those mistakes, too.
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