We're not supposed to root for the teams we cover but Saturday night in the Coliseum, we were pulling for a USC team -- and for the way it was coached up and worked hard to get here.
We were sure of just how that works. Pete Carroll did it, in a different time and in a different way, but his teams worked faster and harder and competed with one another and pulled together and played with the confidence that they had prepared better than anyone they would play. And they had. They knew what they were doing. They'd done it under pressure in practice. Practice matters.
Which is why 3 1/2 of the last four years were so frustrating around here. And maybe even some of the last year or two with Pete here.
This isn't magic. USC's freshmen-enhanced 52-13 romp over Fresno State wasn't by accident. Wasn't the result of good luck or a team pulling together against the outside distractions or two teammates who had gone off the reservation on their own or any of that.
It was a team playing the way they had practiced. And I'm loving some of this as the old-time high school coach from back in the day who thought he knew how to do this. Going hard, playing and practicing fast, getting guys up to speed literally, no matter how young they are, is the way to do this.
Getting them confident enough to know that no matter how much the media took this one off the rails the last five days, they couldn't push a team out of what it knew it could do -- if it did what it does every day in practice.
And so it did. "We got out-coached and outplayed," Fresno State coach Tim DeRuyter said. And he was right on both counts. "We're not ready at this point to compete against a team like USC."
They got "worn down," DeRuyter said, and by a USC team that at the start of the game could call on just 57 originally recruited scholarship players.
But we're versatile," Steve Sarkisian said of a team he's coached to be that way. And how do you do that? You run a 100 plays a day in practice, usually more, and then a Pac-12 record 105 Saturday night.
Three times, DeRuyter said, the Bulldogs had a chance to "get off the field" on the first USC drive and each time, USC made a play to convert "and they went on a 17-play drive."
This wasn't helter-skelter stuff, this was an uptempo attack led by a guy wielding a scalpel and converting seven of the first eight third-down conversion opportunities that came USC's way.
"They are physical and really talented," DeRuyter said. And by the numbers, better off than the last time these two teams played in Las Vegas last December when USC could call on a mere 44 originally recruited scholarship players.
The difference? USC played 11 true freshmen, including Adoree Jackson, who played both cornerback and wide receiver, scoring a touchdown on an 18-yard catch as well-executed a route as you'll see in the NFL Sunday. They weren't alone. Another six redshirt freshmen, including three walkons, also played and played well.
That was fun," Sark said -- maybe for the first time in a distraction-filled week that he and his USC staff handled about as well as anyone could have hoped. There's no place in the coaches' manual you can look up how to handle what happened to USC this week.
"We handled it," Sark said. "I maybe brought it up to them twice all week.It wasn't going to be a focus of ours. I wasn't going to let an external factor motivate us or not motivate us . . . This team has been through a lot, has great leadership and dealt with this like they were professionals -- and they did a good job."
They handled it like professionals because they have that kind of talent but they practiced like a team with a lot to do and a lot of players to get ready. There's only one way to do that. And USC did it.
But this wasn't about the new kids on the block, as Sark couldn't even try to come up with a play or plays by the new guys that made him start bumping chests on the sidelines. There were too many. Was it JuJu Smith's soft hands, big body and fast feet, or Adoree's ability to step in and play three ways, or Bryce Dixon's runaway TD catch and leap into the stands.
How about the three freshman offensive linemen, Sark asked. So confident was USC of them, they subbed one for another in mid-series. How long has it been since we've seen that?
About as long as it's been since we saw a USC team run off a Pac-12 record 105 plays, which of course is never, or roll up 701 yards of offense or 427 in the first half alone on 62 plays, almost the number the Trojans averaged in a full game under Lane Kiffin.
"I loved it," Sark said, talking about what he'd learned about this team, that it was "a hungry team that loved to play and knew the importance of taking the field at the Coliseum. They were ready to go. There was great energy and passion and enthusiasm and they played as a team. There are a lot of things to clean up, penalties to fix but in all, I'm proud of their effort."
Cody Kessler, for one, who nearly equalled his career-high passing totals with 309 passing yards (20 of 31) on his way to 394 and four TD passes on 25 of 37 with no interceptions.Here's why, Cody said. And you'll catch two key themes in his answer: freshmen and practice. "Ever since the summer in practices, these guys have come wanting to learn. They're asking questions and texting me to meet for film. We threw them in there and I knew they were going to run the right route and not miss their ssignments. I was excited for them, especially in their first game."
But how good is it when you hardly have to mention USC's All-American candidates when Leonard Williams gets a pick and return for 10 yards on top of his seven tackles and Nelson Agholor, all he does is grab fie passes for 57 yards and two TDS as one of the 10 Trojans to catch a pass in this one.
And how about Buck Allen? He quietly runs 133 yards on 22 carries with a nine-yard TD run and it's no big deal even if it is his fifth 100-yard-plus game in his last seven outings.
The beat goes on here. Too many names on a roster with too few of them. That may be as good a parlay as you could hope for. Which is what the 76,037 fans at the Coliseum Saturday evening got: More than they could have ever hoped for.
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