Curtis McNeal spent about five minutes Saturday standing in the middle of a battered Coliseum field answering questions from reporters. His message, however simple, proved telling.
“It was the offensive line,” the senior running back said of USC’s 27-9 win over California. “It was all just the offensive line.”
McNeal got his point across: USC at last got its running game going, thanks in large part to its offensive line.
One week after rushing for just 26 yards on 28 carries in a crushing seven-point loss in their Pac-12 opener at Stanford, the No. 13 Trojans bounced back with 296 yards on the ground to notch their ninth consecutive win over the Golden Bears.
USC’s pair of running backs trudged all over a Cal front seven with 158 yards coming from junior Silas Redd and 115 by way of McNeal, the first time the team had two players each rush for more than 100 yards in a single game since a 2008 contest at Washington State.
“They opened up holes for me and Silas and we just hit them,” said McNeal, who finished with his fifth-career 100-yard game.
USC (3-1, 1-1) posted nearly 500 yards in total offense, but for a change, a majority of them came on the ground as the team made a concerted effort to re-energize its running game, which had not only struggled at various points in the previous weeks but had been seemingly neglected as well.
On the third play from scrimmage, McNeal took a handoff from senior quarterback Matt Barkley for 62 yards, racing down the south sidelines before being knocked out at the 4-yard line. Though the Trojans would fail to score on the drive following an interception from Barkley two plays later, the tone was set early: USC was going to run. The team 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.”
And so USC’s efforts running the ball overshadowed a passing game that never really got going, with drops from sophomore wide receiver Marqise Lee and junior wide receiver Robert Woods. Barkley would also finish with two interceptions, moving his total to five on the season. He finished with just seven interceptions in 446 attempts in 2011.
“It’s fun winning 50-0, but that doesn’t happen every week unfortunately,” Kiffin said. “And so some games will be like this.”
To give its offensive line a boost, USC played a bit of musical chairs with its front five. After being sidelined the week prior because of 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 opened up the competition at left tackle earlier in the week after expressing displeasure with Walker’s effort in the team’s Pac-12 opener against Stanford.
“It got some fire under my butt,” said Walker, who eventually played 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. He also threw two interceptions.
“They’re coming around,” USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said. “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 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.
“[Breslin’s] a natural pass rusher,” Horton said. “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.
“That is an explosive offense, and at the end of the day we won it up front,” Kiffin said. “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.”
— Andre Heidari resumed field-goal kicking duties against Cal after missing the previous two weeks because of a leg injury sustained in the season opener against Hawai’i. The sophomore kicker made both of his attempts: a 40-yard field goal in the second quarter and a 41-yard kick in the fourth. He was also 3 for 3 on extra-point attempts.
— USC’s announced attendance of 83,421 at the Coliseum was about 10,000 shy of a sellout. The school had sold out its last two home games, Sept. 1 against Hawai’i and last season’s finale against UCLA. Its upcoming November contests against Oregon and Notre Dame have also been announced as sellouts.
— USC does not play next week. Its next game is Oct. 4 when the Trojans travel to Salt Lake City to face Utah in a rare Thursday primetime matchup. The game kicks off at 6 p.m. and will be televised on ESPN.