Shotgun Spratling | USCfootball.com

Trojans win 4th straight and beat the spread, OK?

USC wins its 13th straight against a dangerous Cal team so why does it feel so unrewarding? Good question.

We're going with Sam Darnold on this one.

While some of the sillier post-game questioners wanted to know how he compares himself to UCLA's Josh Rosen and were talking his stat-line to Sam, Sam was saying it's not at all about stats.

Not even a little bit. It's about feel. "Do I feel good about it?" is the question Sam asks himself after each game. So did he . . . after the Cal game? Did he feel good about his 18 for 25 passing for 233 yards and five touchdowns with one interception -- and those two lost fumbles?

"I felt OK," Sam said in an observation as accurate as any of those five TD passes. "OK" it was, USC's 45-24 win allowed the Trojans to improve to 5-3 (4-2 in the Pac-12) with  four-game unbeaten streak in October.

And yet, here the Trojans were, dispatching a dangerous Cal team by 21 points, a Cal team that had already beaten both Texas and Utah while also beating the seemingly ridiculous Vegas spread that had reached 20 points -- up from 14.5 earlier in the week -- before kickoff and yet you had this feeling of what might have been.

What could have been.

But wasn't. USC's 28-10 halftime lead probably could have been 35-0. Two turnovers gave Cal its two scores. "We probably left a few out there," Clay Helton said in the understatement of the week. And yet . . . 

The "Whataburger boys" from suburban Dallas had that game that made them happy they came here from Texas as they powered USC to 398 yards on the ground with 353 yards between them.

Ronald Jones had that game everyone thought the sophomore was going to have with Justin Davis out, going off for a career-high 223 yards on 18 carries (12.4 average) and a TD with a long gain of 61. He was the first Trojan to rush for more than 200 yards in more than two years -- since Buck Allen did it in 2014 against Arizona.

Aca'Cedric Ware ran for a career-high 130 yards on 20 carries -- a 6.5 average -- with a long gain of 23.

But it wasn't all on the ground even if Clay looked at the numbers -- "three-hundred and ninety-eight yards rushing and we threw five touchdown passes," Clay said with an approving shake of the head. Senior wide receiver Darreus Rogers added career highs of 97 yards and two TD catches on six receptions. And yet . . .

There were the two fumbles. One came as Sam was blindsided as he drew back to throw. Not really his fault. The other came as he road Ronald with the ball on a run-pass option and tried to pull the ball back to throw as Ronald ran through it, knocking it loose on the ground. "I should have gotten it," Sam said, after hitting it first.

"We've got some things to improve on to keep him going," Clay said. "It wasn't perfect tonight but the beautiful thing is he knows it." Sam's not the only one. But he's the only one that matters.

Although as bad as his intereption late was, throwing off the back foot, not seeing the safety come over, underthrowing it into double coverage, was it any worse than the decision to make that fourth-quarter call right after the rain? And with USC running the ball as well as it was -- with Ced going for 21 yards the two previous plays to the Cal 34 with 11:48 to go and USC leading 42-24.

Don't blame the play-callers, Clay said of coordinator Tee Martin and his sidekick, Tyson Helton. "That was on me," Clay said. He'd told them to stay aggressive against a dangerous Cal team although was there anything more aggressive than a USC team running the ball for 398 yards on 48 carries, an 8.3 average?

So there's that. Is a team with this much talent but also this many mistakes -- did we mention the 13 penalties for 125 yards? OK, now we have. Clay was impressed by USC limiting Cal -- after the Bears ran off an NCAA record 118 plays in last week's overtime win against Oregon -- to 83 plays.

But those 13 penalties in a game with 156 plays amounted to one every dozen plays. Do that in Seattle in two-and-a-half weeks and Washington runs this team out of town. And yet, as Clay said, there was improvement. USC did hold Cal to its fewest points of the season, 19.7 points below their average of 43.7. The Bears had scored 50 on Texas, 51 on Arizona State and 52 on Oregon. So that's something.

And USC's 629 yards of offense is something, as well. Cal may not be great on defense but that's the most they've given up.

Although they clearly had an excuse, if you listened to them talk after the game. Cal coach Sonny Dykes was positively fuming as his team dropped to 4-4 (2-3 in the Pac-12). Too bad he couldn't have been in the press box to tell Commissioner Larry Scott directly.

"We looked like a tired, beat-up football team," Dykes said, "and we were. I said it last week. It's a travesty whoever scheduled this game to schedule us on back-to-back weekday games on six days rest against a team to play a team on the road on an open date." And of course, he has a point.

But Sonny wasn't finished. "I hope the Pac-12 doesn't do this again to another school. It's not right for the kids. It's not right for the players. They've had to miss a bunch of class. Everybody talks about student welfare but they didn't put their money were their mouth is on this one."

But Sonny must have realized how that sounded. "Give USC credit," he said. "they're a good team and Clay has done a nice job and they've gotten better every week."

That was Clay's focus. They're getting better. The offensive line is creating the kind of seams "that made it easy to read running behind them," RoJo said, still mad at himself for not taking the first play all the way for an 88-yard TD and getting run out of bounds after 61 yards.

So that's a good thing. Getting better and staying mad at all the imperfections and there were plenty. And yet they won by 21. gainst a team that beat Texas and Utah. So it's not all bad. Just not as good as it could have been.  

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

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