Finally, these Trojans who have been through so much will have something to show for it -- rings.
Not game balls.
There really weren't enough footballs -- or maybe too many Trojans deserving them after Saturday's 40-21 romp over UCLA, snapping the Bruins' three-game streak and putting USC into the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time in history next Saturday in Santa Clara at Levi's Stadium (5 p.m., ESPN or ABC).
USC (8-4, 6-3 in the Pac-12) will face Stanford for the second time this season, having lost 41-31 to the Cardinal in Game 3 at the Coliseum.
Cody Kessler wasn't giving his ball up. He'd held on to it since the final play, carrying it with him from interview to interview.
Neither was Clay Helton. His game ball had been hand-delivered by Adoree' Jackson after Adoree's 42-yard go-ahead punt return touchdown, his second in two weeks.
Then there's Justin Davis who ran for an even 100 yards in the fourth quarter behind a patchwork offensive line that just kept calling for him to run their way.
"Who's that No. 73," Tyron Smith wanted to know as the USC players -- and alums -- celebrated on the field after the game. The Cowboy all-star didn't have long to wait for his answer as Zach Banner was tapping him on the shoulder and asking for his phone number and telling him "I watch all your games on video . . . you're the best O-lineman in the league."
But on this day, Banner was the best O-lineman on the field. "It's my first ring," Banner said, the first time we could say we're champions. "It's a testament to our team, a testament to our coaches.
And a testament to how you just never know. Su'a Cravens gets one for his calling on his teammates not to make this too big a deal, just go out and play your game, he told them all week. And darned if they didn't.
"I'll be honest with you," Su'a said, "if we'd have lost, I'd have been sick. But we made up our mind Tuesday that we weren't going to be beat . . . and we weren't."
But give one to the entire defense, which held the Bruins to a mere 11 yards total -- passing and rushing -- in the fourth quarter while Justin Davis was racking up his 100 yards on the ground against a whipped UCLA defense.
"Coach Helton has confidence in me," Davis said, finishing with 130 yards on 25 carries (a 5.2 average). "That makes a big difference.
Also making a difference and earning game balls were the moving-up O-linemen like Nico Falah, a guard and tackle, who slid over to center when Khaliel Rodgers went down. And spent much of the game handling UCLA's top D-lineman Kenneth Clark, like he'd been there all season.
"I really want to point out one guy, Nico Falah," Helton said before finishing up his postgame presser. "He deserves a lot of credit." And was getting it, even from UCLA fans.
But he wasn't alone. Chris Brown started at left guard and held his own.as USC outgained UCLA 235 yards to 140 on the ground.
How about splitting one between the D-line duo of senior Claude Pelon and freshman Rasheem Green, who combined for a 31-yard sack, strip, scoop and score of UCLA freshman quarterback Josh Rosen, who looked the part of a rookie in a big game in this one. Rosen didn't see Pelon coming and with the ball loose, Green, the Serra product said he "didn't even consider falling on the ball."
Those back-to-back go-ahead scores from Serra alum (after Adoree's punt return) had USC on top 26-20 midway through the third quarter and the flood gates were about to open.
Now the offense was getting into it. Darreus Rogers made maybe the pass-receiving play of the year coming back to the ball to finish a drive started by one of Iman Marshall's two interceptions. First he had to play through the UCLA defender coming back from the goal line, then had to pivot with the ball extended from the three to the end zone. 33-21 Trojans.
And in one of those calls you can make and make you look smart when you can run the ball, Kessler play-actioned from the 7 to Taylor McNamara open by 10 yards in the end zone. 40-21. Game, set, match -- Trojans.
One game ball, of course, goes to freshman running back Ronald Jones II, who broke Charles White's freshman rushing record with 63 yards today giving him a total of 890 for the season, besting White's 1976 total of 858. "That means everything to me," Ronald said. "It's great, an honor, something I never expected. He was a 200-yard rusher and a Heisman winner."
And for sure, a game ball goes to freshman corner Marshall, who could have given himself a couple of his own after a pair of interceptions where the aggresive Long Beach Poly alum didn't shy away despite some setbacks.
"I just did my job," Marshall said after admitting "I made a lot of mistakes last week" at Oregon. "I listened to a lot of the guys like Cody and Adoree' . . . it's been a learning curve."
And today, the final regular season exam, that learning and encouragement paid off. "We did our job today," Adoree' said. "We had Coach Helton, our entire staff and the fans behind us.
It was a recurring theme in the game. "Remember, hashtagHelton2016, Greg Townsend Jr. said of the team's twitter drive to get their interim coach, who is 6-2 in that role in two stints at USC, elevated to the head coach before this is over. "He's a great person."
"Absolutely," Cody said when asked the "should Helton be handed the head coaching job?" question. "We rallied behind Coach Helton . . . he always gets us going.
"He's one of those guys you'd do anything for," Cody said. "I said that before when Coach O was here . . . that man is special no matter what happens. If we win 10 games or lose, he is going to be the same. He is very real. That's why we love him. I know it's not my decision what happens with the coach next year but we want to do everything we can to give him the opportunity to be the permanent head coach."
"That is not my job," Helton said when he heard the talk. Not his job to make that call. "My job is to watch over this team and win every game we are associated with. We have the opportunity to be Pac-12 champions. That is pretty good stuff. I let the guys whose job it is to speculate . . . speculate."
As they will, of course.
Although Su'a wasn't going to. "He's the the best coach for this team," he said of Helton. Not a doubt in his mind. But does that matter, he was asked, since you won't be here next year?
"I know people think I'm a lock to not be here next year, but I'm dead serious that I would look to see who's coaching here [before making his decision]. He means that much to me."
Rosen wasn't quite as complimentary of to the rest of the Trojans after the loss. "They didn't do anything different," he said of the aggressive, man-to-man-defending Trojans . . . "We had plays and schemes to beat all of it . . . and we didn't execute. We made the defense look a little better than they necessarily were. It's no shot at them. We just didn't execute.
UCLA coach Jim Mora, however, had other thoughts. "We've never faced a team that has that much athleticism," Mora said after his first loss to USC in four games. "This is as athletic a team, as a collection of young men, that you'll find in college football. The talent on that squad is simply amazing."
And Clay Helton freed his USC athletes to be athletes in this game that mattered most to how they can finish out. And now there's a game next week where they're going to need to be more athletic than this week.
"We will be," Su'a said.
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