The story: The Trojans rebound from two consecutive last-second losses with a 48-14 romp of California at the Coliseum.
The Golden Bears’ defense entered the game as one of the best in the nation and the best in the Pac-10, but it didn’t look the part on Saturday.
The Trojans exploded for 602 yards and 42 first-half points, continuing their stellar offensive play. USC gained 391 of those yards in the air against Cal’s sixth-ranked pass defense that was allowing only 148.8 yards a game.
Meanwhile, USC dominated on defense for the first time this year. It was a statement game after two straight weeks where the defense gave up late drives that ended in losses. Cal gained 245 total yards, the majority coming against the Trojan backups.
Player of the game: Matt Barkley. The sophomore quarterback logged his second five-touchdown pass performance of the season (the first was against Hawai’i). Barkley was 25-of-37 for 352 yards with no interceptions.
“As a team, from offense to defense, I think we played our most complete game,” Barkley said. “It was really good to see everyone in each phase of the game on point.”
Freshman wide receiver Robert Woods hauled in two Barkley touchdowns, as did senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson. Senior wide receiver David Ausberry caught one.
For the second time this season, Barkley tied the single-game USC record for touchdown passes in a game.
He had a chance to break it on USC’s second drive of the third quarter. Barkley completed a pass to Woods near the goal line and Woods extended for the pylon but came up just short. After a delay of game penalty, Barkley took three shots to the end zone but came up empty.
USC coach Lane Kiffin said there was a concerted effort to get Barkley the record.
“Yeah, I was just tired of it being tied,” Kiffin said. “One of these days we’re going to break it.”
You knew it was over when: With USC already up 35-0 late in the first half, redshirt junior defensive tackle DaJohn Harris intercepted a pass from Cal quarterback Kevin Riley and returned it to the Cal 26-yard line. With 26 seconds remaining, the Trojans could have sat on their comfortable lead.
Instead, they kept their foot on the accelerator and completed their dominant half with yet another touchdown, an 11-yard pass from Barkley to Johnson.
Play of the game: Harris’ interception. Not only did the defensive tackle confirm the thrashing, but he also showed he has decent hands.
Riley tried to sneak a screen past Harris, but the 6-foot-4, 305-pound former high school tight end reached out and caught the ball like a receiver.
“I’ve still got good hands,” Harris said. “I haven’t caught a ball since high school.”
Getting defensive (finally): USC’s defense has been heavily criticized for its play this season. It gave up huge chunks of yards against Hawai’i, Washington and Stanford, and it was helpless to stop late drives the last two weeks that set up two heartbreaking endings.
This week, it came full circle. The defense was nearly perfect in the first half, shutting out the Bears while giving up just 64 yards.
The Trojans forced two turnovers (sophomore safety T.J. McDonald got the other interception) and sacked Riley twice.
The defense was fed up with their critics.
“We take that personal,” McDonald said.
So what changed? Nothing scheme-wise, according to McDonald. The Trojans were just in better position.
“We just were able to get lined up and play,” he said.
The what-ifs: After such an emphatic performance, it’s worth mentioning that the Trojans could easily have been undefeated heading into their bye week and then their home showdown with No. 1 Oregon.
If a few plays had gone differently in the previous two weeks, USC could be sitting pretty at 6-0. The Trojans showed how good they can be when their defense plays well.
“I think all three games [Washington, Stanford and Cal] are exactly the same except for one thing: We played really good defense in one of the three,” Kiffin said.
The downside: Reserve senior running back C.J. Gable left the game with a knee injury in the fourth quarter. Kiffin said Gable probably blew out his knee and would likely be out for the season.
“The kid walks by [after the game], can barely walk, and he says, ‘Coach I’m sorry I couldn’t finish today,’” Kiffin said. “That says a lot about him.”