Trojans survive, thrive over Cal

Running the ball when they had to and taking it away when could, USC managed to hold on and come away happy as heck with a 27-21 win at Cal that could have been a lot easier but the Trojans will take it.

BERKELEY, Calif. -- It almost didn't matter that USC's 27-21 win at Cal Saturday could have easily been 35-14. The Trojans will take it just as it is.

Down to the wire. holding on for dear life. Winning one of these Pac-12 nailbiters when you absolutely, positively have to make a play -- or a number of them -- with your back against the wall.

Which when you come to think of it is where this USC team in a sudden-death playoff finish where it's one-and-you're-out to the end. Certainly that was the way this one played out.

With a three-score, 24-7 lead over a dangerous Cal team that hadn't lost at home midway through the third quarter after Adoree' Jackson's first-ever college interception that he returned 46 adventurous yards for his first-ever Pick Six, the Trojans appeared to be on Easy Street for a change.

Not exactly. Not this team. Not this season. Nothing is coming easy for these guys. And they know it. Actually, they kind of welcome it.

So when Tre Madden, on a sore knee, was stopped dead in his tracks on a desperation third and one with under 3:00 left at the USC 42, and then popped outside in a desperation move to get 14 yards and an all-important first down, it was validation.

One of USC's "grown-man plays," Clay Helton called them as he improved to 2-1 as an interim coach (2-0 in the Pac-12 the second half of the season) for the 5-3 Trojans (3-2 in the Pac-12).

"A confidence call," Helton said, "a statement call."

But not the final call. Seconds later, USC was there again. Third and six this time, at the Cal 40, with 2:13 left. With freshman Ronald Jones II nursing a sore knee, after his 13-yard first half touchdown run, Justin Davis got the call this time.

Like Tre, he'd come up short in an earlier third-down run. And like Tre, when he absolutely had to have it, Justin got it. Seven yards off left tackle. Made it by one. Out of timeouts, it was over for Cal.

And there was joyful noise from the USC sideline. "I still wasn't perfect today," Helton said after a locker room celebration of multiple "Fight On's" and talk of the Trojan family and guys coming together.

"There are still some things I have to get corrected," Helton said. "But thank goodness for a bunch of great players and a great staff. They hide a lot of things I may mess up on but yes, I am getting more comfortable."

This was a USC team that, despite the predicament it found itself in at the end, after giving up 14 fourth-quarter points to the Bears and quarterback Jared Goff while managing just a field goal in USC's final four possessions, wasn't the least bit down on itself.

"We're 2-0 in the back half," said Cody Kessler who was a quiet 18 of 22 for 186 yards with no TDs, no INTs. "We have to get healthy but I'm all about winning games. These guys don't care about stats."

Well there was one stat that mattered. USC managed three takeaways -- two interceptions and a tone-setting fumble Lamar Dawson punched loose on Cal's first possession. "I just tried to make a play," Lamar said. "I saw the ball and went for it."

"That's fun for the defense," Lamar said. "When we get one of those, we see who's going to get the next one. On this day that was Adoree', who came off the field and told Kevon Seymour he should try it.

"Your confidence goes up here," Adoree' said he told Kevon, who followed Adoree' with a pick of Goff, who finished with 23 of 31 passing for 272 yards, with two TDs and two INTs. And when Kevon did, returning a pick off Goff 27 yards, he came up to Adoree' and agreed: "It does go up to here," he said.

Which is where it is for a USC team that may have struggled with the play calls and getting the ball to the right player at the right time and settled for a couple of field goals when it really should have scored TDs.

But this wasn't one of those laydown games. There were the injuries to Juju Smith-Schuster, who fractured his right hand on the opening kickoff and played with it as long as he could after having it casted.

Su'a Cravens got his elbow banged up with a hit from Delvon Simmons' face mask and Simmons had a hit on his right shoulder that numbed it for a while, he said.

But they all should be back next week. JuJu spent much of the second half arguing with the docs that he should be back this week.

But for every "we have the injury bug right now" downer in the postgame, there was an upbeat moment. Like when Adoree' was asked about the double wide receiver double revers pass that he started with a lateral to Jalen Greene who drilled freshman Deontay Burnett for 34 yards despite a defender in his grill.

Asked if that play had a name, a 1-2-3 play of all Serra alums, Adoree' said "I didn't even notice that -- it was just I thought Jalen threw it to Deontay . . . maybe we should call it 'Serra'."

"It doesn't have a name," Burnett said after racking up a career-high 82 yards on his three catches. "In my mind it's the Serra trio play."

But whatever it was, as with so many of the plays on this day, it was "a confidence builder," Helton said. The glass is half full, for sure, despite the bold-your-breath ending.

That's because when push came to shove, literally, USC did just enough pushing and shoving.

"A huge part is the trust you have in your runners and your offensive line," Helton said, saying it all started on the opening series of the second half on that fourth-and-two at the goal line that Madden blasted through to make it 17-7.

"We gave them the opportunity to say, 'Guys, this is Trojan football. When it's time to run the ball, it's time to take care of our opponent'," Helton said.

And take care of their own confidence with Helton saying of his team asking him, in so many words: "Hey Coach, give us an opportunity and we'll make it happen."

"Coach Helton is a really open guy," Damien Mama said of the O-line getting a vote here. And even if Mama was late-arriving as he pulled into the hole on that third-and-one and got drilled in the back by Madden, he could not have been more happy about it.

"I saw him bounce off and make a great play," Damien said. That's all that matters.

Madden had been stuffed on a fourth-and-one at the Cal 29 earlier in the fourth quarter and was thinking about "when I didn't get it," he said. "It fed into my attitude . . . we're hearing how we're not physical . . . hearing that a lot . . . not like past USC teams."

But now they got it done. "We're resilient," Tre said.

And more importantly, they're still alive.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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