All season the Trojans have preached finishing. Finish a run. Finish a block. Finish the play, the drill, the day. During the summer, USC players took the field following rigorous team conditioning for voluntary player-run practices with only a handful of outsiders around. They often ended those practices with one final word as they broke it down before heading inside: “Finish.”
It is something that has been repeated over and over and over after the Trojans faded down the stretch in the fourth quarter last year in game after game.
“It’s something we should have been doing for the past two years. It’s something we should have done last year against Utah at Utah. It’s something we should have done last year against Arizona State,” offensive tackle Zach Banner said. “Our defense, they work their tails off. I think we should reward them by showing them how we’re going to pound the ball down [our opponents'] throats until the time runs out.”
USC wasn’t able to salt away games last year, losing twice on the final play, escaping on a missed field goal once and having to breathe heavily in the final five minutes of two other games it had previously held big leads during.
“It’s been a challenge since I got hired last spring, coming in and finishing the second half,” USC offensive line coach Bob Connelly said. “It’s a very, very important situation for us. I talk to my guys all the time about packing their lunch for 60 minutes and finishing a game.”
Here USC was once again, holding onto a late lead against Cal and trying to put the game away by grinding out the tough yards in the trenches while milking the clock like a Depression-era farmer. Connelly and his unit’s opportunity to make a statement lay in front of them.
The Trojans got the ball at the 33-yard line with 3:45 remaining, holding a 27-21 lead.
Already twice in the fourth quarter, they had chances to enforce their will. They ran the ball on nine of their 10 plays, picking up one first down. It wasn’t enough. Though USC had expired a combined six minutes on two drives, Tre Madden had been stonewalled on a fourth-and-1 in (long) field goal range and Justin Davis got only one yard on a third-and-2 the next drive, forcing a punt.
Jared Goff had just led the Golden Bears on an 87-yard drive to cut the lead to six points and Cal had all the momentum with the home crowd growing more and more excitable.
There was no confusion about what the Trojans needed to do. Offensive guard Damien Mama said the message on the sideline was simple.
“This is us. We’ve got to end the game. We can’t rely on others and wait for something to happen. We’ve got to take a step forward and just go to work.”
This wasn’t the time for bubble screens. No hitches, rub routes, flare passes or run-pass options would do.
“Finish. Be physical. They know we’re running the ball. We know we’re going to run it to get the clock down,” Madden said. “We do a team run period every Tuesday and it’s a physical mentality. That’s what we have to bring during the four-minute to finish the game.”
Despite the offense’s struggles to pick up first downs earlier in the fourth quarter, interim head coach Clay Helton showed faith in his big boys up front.
“Even after we didn’t get it one time, he said we’re going to ride your backs the rest of the season,” Banner said. “He looked at me, as a leader, and I just relayed that to my offensive line.
“It’s good to know that we have an offensive coordinator that is going to run the ball, that trusts us. Coach Helton literally tells us every single time, ‘We’re going to run the ball behind you.’ And it feels great.”
Freshman running back Ronald Jones II got the first crack at it. Nine of the first 11 plays he participated in against Cal had been handoffs to Jones II. There was no question he was getting the ball. He broke an arm tackle and fell forward for five yards up the middle followed by four more. Cal called a timeout with 2:58, hoping to save Goff as much time as possible. Helton followed with a timeout to make sure of the playcall — a run up the middle by Madden.
USC overloaded the right side of the line, putting left tackle Chad Wheeler outside of Banner with fullback Jahleel Pinner on the edge. Madden got the ball with fullback Soma Vainuku leading the way and Mama pulling from left guard to give the Trojans five blockers on the right side. But Wheeler got blown backwards and Pinner crumpled to the ground. Vainuku got stood up leaving Mama nowhere to go. Mama hit the first defender he could find with Madden running right into his rear. There was nowhere to go.
“We ran an inside play and they got a lot of penetration up front,” Madden said. “I hit it. Bounced back and then saw that outside opening and just took that."
Madden kept his feet, bounced back three yards and tried to get wide. He beat linebacker Hardy Nickerson to the edge and USC receiver Darreus Rogers provided a great block keeping the cornerback from having a chance to assist. Madden picked up the first down and kept the clock rolling by cutting back inside to assure he wasn’t pushed out of bounds.
“Trojan ball, man. Coach called the play and the players got to go make it happen. The play wasn’t there and Tre made a play happen,” Rogers said. “That’s all on Tre. He did a heck of a job right there.”
The Trojans weren’t in the clear, 2:22 remained when they snapped the ball again. Davis picked up four yards, but was stuffed for no gain on the next play. Timeouts stopped the clock after each play. There was still 2:13 on the clock and USC needed six yards.
Rather than put the ball in the hands of his fifth-year quarterback even though there was a risk of an incompletion stopping the clock, Helton put it on the offensive line once again. The Trojans ran to the left for the first time on the drive. Pinner came in motion and was able to kick out a linebacker coming off the edge while Wheeler sealed the edge, giving Davis a clear lane. A safety came up and hit Davis a yard shy of the sticks, but Davis fell forward for a 7-yard gain and a game-clinching first down.
“That’s how you want to end a game right there. Before the series started, we said offense was going to finish this game out,” Talamaivao said. “We made a decision consciously that when we got on the field, we weren’t going to get off until time ran out and the game was over.
“It was great. It was great to finally do what we preach. The whole emphasis this year has been on finish and we did just that at Cal. It was cool.”
The defensive players appreciated the new experience as well, standing on the sideline and watching the offense lock up the game in the final moments. Linebacker Su’a Cravens said it was awesome while cornerback Kevon Seymour admitted he was nervous.
“ It was fun. It was definitely fun,” Seymour said. “It was kind of nerve-wracking. We needed to get those first downs so we could run out the clock.”
And that’s exactly what USC was able to do.
“It was awesome,” Talamaivao said. “This team has been through so much. It’s been an up-and-down season, but it definitely builds a lot of confidence knowing our coaches trust in us. Running the ball the way we did and being able to feel in control of the game is definitely a huge confidence booster going forward.”