USC perseveres in must-win situation

After USC polished off the finishing touches on a near-perfect 35-7 victory over Boston College, the Trojans were quick to admit that the atmosphere surrounding the team’s preparations for the Eagles wasn’t ideal.

“It was really dark last week,” redshirt sophomore tailback Tre Madden said. “This [win] was a relief.”

Rumors about a players-only meeting organized by junior wide receiver Marqise Lee dominated headlines last week, stirring the media into a frenzy as the perception that head coach Lane Kiffin had lost the faith of his players received apparent credibility.

USC’s pending matchup against Boston College was essentially pushed to the backburner as Kiffin’s detractors salivated at the possibility of a player mutiny.

“It wasn’t a great week,” Kiffin said. “There wasn’t positivity around for obvious reasons.”

But as the news cycle centered around that phantom meeting, which was seemingly no more than a few players talking in the medical training room, the Trojans mostly stayed mum, focused on the task at hand — and Saturday’s results spoke for them.

“I thought these guys kept working, kept grinding and just worked extremely hard,” Kiffin said. “They didn’t let people tear them apart. They came out and performed really well today.”

Even though most lines in Las Vegas favored USC by two touchdowns, Saturday’s matchup felt like anything but a sure thing after the shocking loss to Washington State.

After last season, when USC’s mistakes snowballed through the rest of the year after a heartbreaking loss to Arizona, it was essential for the Trojans to show the ability to bounce back while under scrutiny from fans and media alike.

Entering Saturday, USC was just 6-5 in games following a loss under Kiffin.

“It would have been very difficult to go back to the kids and tell them to practice if we lost again,” Kiffin admitted.

Given that the announced crowd at the Coliseum was 62,006, the smallest of the Kiffin era, it’s fair to say it would have been just as hard to convince fans to come back for the team’s game against Utah State this Saturday.

But instead of another disappointing defeat, which would have been disastrous, the team turned in its first truly inspired performance since last November’s 38-17 victory over Arizona State, which feels eons ago at this point.

From the first play, on a long pass ordered straight from USC President C. L. Max Nikias himself, the Trojans engaged the crowd and set to rest any thought that they’d roll over to a lesser opponent for the second straight week.

“It was a thing we took personal,” redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler said of the dismal performance against Washington State. “Personally, for the offense, it can be tough to bounce back from a game like that.

But the Trojans made it look easy.

Kessler finally showed the public the potential he flashed in fall camp, passing for 237 yards and two touchdowns while only recording two incompletions. Kessler’s 174 passing yards in the first half surpassed his career total (145).

USC’s co-starters at tailback, redshirt sophomore Tre Madden and freshman Justin Davis, racked up 198 rushing yards, keeping injured senior Silas Redd off the minds of the Trojan faithful.

USC’s total offensive output (521 yards) was the most the team has gained since piling up 615 in a 63-52 loss to Oregon last season.

And somehow, the defense topped itself after two outstanding weeks to kick off the 2013 campaign.

Even though the Trojans didn’t force any turnovers and only recorded one sack, USC held the Eagles to 184 total yards, the fewest allowed by the Trojans since 2009, when Pete Carroll was still patrolling the sidelines.

Boston College tailback Andre Williams was the nation’s third leading rusher coming into the game, but the Trojans held him to 38 yards on 17 carries. That completely handicapped the Eagles offense, which thrives on establishing the run game to set up play-action passes for quarterback Chase Rettig.

Simply put, it was just what USC needed after a dreadful Week 2.

It’s unclear how the Trojans will play against Utah State, which figures to be USC’s toughest nonconference opponent yet.

But it’s doubtful the mood around Howard Jones Field will resemble last week’s gloomy aura. And for a team — and coach — that’s already faced its fair share of second-guessing by pundits this season, that will surely be a welcome respite.


Follow Will on Twitter @WillLaws