This will come as no surprise but 2016 has been all about timing -- good and bad -- for USC's Trojans.
No way was this team, this scheme, these coaches ready to open against Alabama. Nor were they ready two weeks later to line up against an at-best so-so Stanford team thinking it was still capable of playing like Stanford. Too early. The Cardinal hadn't been exposed, and injured. So tough night for a self-destructive USC with no offense to speak of.
Too bad the next game was at a riled-up Utah with Sam Darnold getting his first start, the one good thing to come out of the Stanford game. Almost anyone else on the schedule, anywhere else, USC probably wins that one.
Maybe even if it's not a short, travel week. Thanks, Pac-12. Of course as it turned out, too much time worked against the Trojans that Friday night, a game that went a mere 16 seconds too long.
But it wasn't just too much time. There were too many turnovers, too few players ready to go on defense, too much standing around at the end, no playmakers when it mattered most and one horrendously dumb pass interference penalty, you get the picture. Close but no cigar.
How'd you like to play Utah now after watching the Utes give up 45 points to UCLA's former walkon QB Mike Fafaul. Or Stanford now that we know the Cardinal's secret -- they're not very good, big, strong or tough.
But you have to be ready to play the game when it's scheduled. USC wasn't. That's on the Trojans.
But then USC got to play Arizona State, Colorado and at Arizona instead. Good timing, we thought. A chance to get it together, figure things out, get a couple of Coliseum wins and then get on the road for another. Sounded like a plan.
Sure, the Sun Devils and the Buffs were ranked but we're told no respectable USC fan should be pleased with those wins. Anyone who was, again we were told, wasn't really in tune with Trojan tradition. Sunshine pump much?
And sure, Colorado is still ranked and rolling. But hey, only JuJu Smith-Schuster taking a dive in the final minute to keep USC from a double-digit margin in a game that wasn't that close, saved the day by keeping USC from blowing it at the buzzer. That's what they say, anyway.
So here we are. Continuing the theme. Another team USC should beat -- a dangerous, but defensively impaired, Cal club coming into the Coliseum Thursday (7:30 p.m., ESPN). Not fair, we're hearing. Short week and travel week for Cal, much like USC's trek to Utah. Better beat the Bears.
But if Utah is allowed to keep its USC win, we'll give this one to the Trojans if they win it. But the 4-3 Bears (2-2 in the Pac-12) won't give it to our 4-3 Trojans (3-2 in the Pac-12). If you fall behind a Cal team averaging 43.7 points a game, you can find yourself in a difficult place.
Much like that 1-3 hole USC was in when the Trojans stopped digging. Don't get behind. And stop stopping yourself.
Which is why we like this game so much. Davis Webb & Co. on offense have really caught USC's attention. They're not looking anywhere down the road. The "Bear Raid" can put a hurt on you.
But the injured Cal defense? Not so much. Which is why we'll be interested in just how well USC handled the bye week, the extra prep time, even if no extra time in full pads.
Is this team, and are these coaches, mature enough to make the best of a resting-up, healing-up extra four days? Have they made the right practice decisions? Have the players taken advantage in all the right ways? Good teams do that. Not so good teams end up getting smacked around in the Holiday Bowl.
No question those extra days came at exactly the right time -- if the Trojans make them work for them. Not to mention the extra couple of days this week before an imploding Oregon gets here a week from Saturday.
Forget figuring out all the possible permutations if so-and-so beats this team but loses to that one -- and on and on. After last weekend, all you better think about is winning out if you're USC and looking to repeat with another Pac-12 South title. Sure, it's not all that much, not this year. But it's all that's out there right now.
Get the next two games. And then head to Seattle with a head of steam.
Which is why the Cal game matters. USC can't allow itself to be stopped -- by itself. No more dumb penalties. No more O-line whiffs. No more careless turnovers. No drive-stopping penalties. That's what you have to do here. You show up and play like, as the cliche' says, a "well-oiled machine." It's time.
Time for people around the Pac-12 to say something other than "USC has the most talent in the league." How about "nobody plays harder". Or "smarter." Or "runs a better scheme." or "hits like USC."
That's what this Cal game is all about. A chance to get a win. A chance to get up a head of steam. A chance to show you know what you're doing. A chance to get better.
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