The game today might have been the best overall defensive effort that we have seen by USC all year long. To come up with six turnovers, 4 interceptions and two fumbles is nothing to be overlooked or minimized. It is true that the California quarterback, Joseph Ayoob played very poorly. On the other hand, just perhaps some of that is due to the schemes and pressure provided by the tough and ever improving USC defensive unit.(Did you hear that Craig, what does he really know, James of ABC television?) The University of California Golden Bears came into this game averaging 35.9 points per game and today they were most fortunate to have scored 10. Their lone touchdown of the day came against the second and third string USC defensive unit. Cal is a team that has one of the most dominating rushing games in the country. With their talented duo of Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett, it is the Bears that seemed to be considered the more likely of the two teams to successfully run the ball in today's game. However, today it was the USC defense that did a most admirable job containing this pair and the Bears managed only 155 yards on the ground, well below their average of 243 coming into the game. For the first time in the last three meetings, no Cal running back was able to go over the 100 yard mark. This fact is all the more remarkable when one considers that USC played two true freshmen and one true sophomore at the linebacker position for a great majority of the game. How unbelievable is that?
In all the years of following the Trojans, I can never remember a single game during which two true freshmen linebackers played such a vital and dominating role in a crucial road victory. Rey Maualuaga and Brian Cushing were absolute studs out there. In the case of Rey M, it is even more amazing considering the very well documented off the field issues that he has had to face. I stated last week that playing Rey would cause a very divisive issue amongst fans and members of the press and unfortunately, that has been the case. Having said that, there is no denying that this kid is one amazing football player and he is just beginning to scratch the surface of his amazing ability. Rey Maualuga has terrific instincts and he is fast, mobile and can run straight ahead and side to side like few others with his size. Not to be outdone, freshman Brian Cushing is simply solid in a way the belies his age and level of experience. He played the SAM position today as well as I have seen in a long time at USC and he made big play after big play. It is really hard to believe that a kid as young as he is can compete at such a high level against kids with much more experience. I was amazed to see how he was part of the play and in the right position time and time again. Assuming that Brian is healthy next seasons (he will have off season shoulder surgery) I simply can't fathom how he will be kept off the field. And one should not forget the terrific effort by true sophomore Keith Rivers. Keith had to leave the game to have a major hand laceration treated. I can say with absolute certainty that playing with a hand laceration is nothing to sneeze at. Yet Keith also played lights out and the linebacking unit in general was a huge reason that Cal's offense could never get untracked.
When discussing the defense, it would be totally unfair not to make mention of how well the defensive backs and the down four also played. It might be my imagination, but it also seems like the cornerbacks' play has improved since Josh Pinkard has become a starter. I just love his physical attitude and his speed and athleticism. That kid is a stud. I also seem to think that with each week, true freshmen Kevin Thomas and Carey Harris continue to improve. I also think that the talented pair of Trojan safeties, Scott Ware and Darnell Bing have both stepped up and the results were evident today. Darnell helped set the defensive tone of the game very early when he made his initial pick. As for the defensive line, it continues to improve game by game. Much has been made of the fact that USC lost Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, but to my eye, LaJuan Ramsey and Sedric Ellis continue to improve and they are really tough to run against. Similarly, the play of DE's Frostee Rucker and Lawrence Jackson is steady if not outright spectacular and all together, this unit is really becoming formidable. Although this team still gives up a few more points per game than last year's edition, they are improving all the time. Although as a unit they don't get quite as many sacks, this dline is managing to keep pressure on the opposing quarterbacks.
The USC offense today was efficient, if not spectacular. Coming into the game the SC juggernaut was averaging 593 yards. Today they managed ONLY 434 yards and 35 points. Obviously, there is a bit of sarcasm intended in the prior sentence. When one analyzes USC's offensive performance today, a couple of things come to light. At times, the Trojans once again seemed to go away from what worked and there was a return to the dare I say Hackettesque fascination with the fade and/or sideline pattern. And guess what? The pattern was not open and it did not work. Also, Matt Leinart was not helped as much as usual by his receivers. Quite uncharacteristically, Steve Smith dropped a pass that was right on target and the usually unbelievable Dominique Byrd had a less than stellar game. Dominique was unable to come up with the big TD catch that I figure he would normally make and he also failed to hold on to a beautifully thrown ball by Matt Leinart that ended up in Matt's only pass interception on a deflected ball. Still, Matt ended up with very respectable statistics, connecting on 20 of 32 passes for 246 yards. If there was anything unfortunate about this game for Matt it is that once again against California, he ended up with more interceptions than touchdown passes. Some might wonder how anyone could be less than thrilled with this offensive effort by the Trojans and I think the answer is not straightforward. I don't really think it is a matter of being dissatisfied. I think many fans have been spoiled by this offensive juggernaut and we can't understand how Cal, with all its new starters could seemingly keep the USC offense out of synch at times.
Of course, to be fair, one should mention that when USC finally decided to take what Cal was giving it and when the Trojans decided to play smashmouth football, the offense really did begin to click. A perfect example occurred on one of the goal to go situations. On one situation, powerback LenDale White never saw the ball even once. On another occasion, on first and goal, Matt once again looked for the corner fade. After that failed, SC finally brought in LenDale and the result was quite predictable. SC pounded the Bears and USC scored. One should also mention we saw something that I am not sure we would ever see during Matt's career. He ran for two touchdowns and threw for none. I wonder if there is a single USC fan who could have ever predicted such an occurrence. Personally, I was very surprised to see Matt run so very well. Many comments have been made about Matt's mobility or lack thereof, but truth be told, he is actually a pretty fast guy. I just wish he would tuck the ball away because carrying the ball in one hand as he does means that Matt is just a fumble waiting to happen when he runs.
Once again, I feel that the unsung offensive hero of this game was the very talented Trojan offensive line. The big uglies as many affectionately refer to them, once again played lights out. For much of the game, SC and Matt Leinart went away from the quick three step drop that had worked so very well as of late, and that means the Oline had to give him lots of time. For the majority of the game, the Oline did their job. On the only sack that I can recall, on a blitz, it was the back that did not pick up the blitzer. The offensive line provided holes and as the game progressed, powerful LenDale White was able to absolutely pound the Bears. They simply could not stop him. The Bears tried to imitate Notre Dame and they were not nearly as successful as the more powerful Fight Irish.
This particular game also illustrated a few other interesting points. Once again, USC had some problems with personal fouls and penalties. On a couple of occasions, major penalties helped propel the Bears and also hindered the Trojans. Considering the emotional nature of this particular game, I guess one can't be too surprised, but it never helps. One should also point out that the Pete Carroll adage that if one guy goes down, another has to compete and simply step up, was put to the test. Very early in the game, starting middle linebacker Thomas Williams, himself substituting for the injured Oscar Lua, went out with a dislocated patella. True to form, a true freshman, Rey Maualuga stepped way up and SC did not miss a beat. The special teams did not give up a single major play for a change, nor did the cornerbacks, and that has to please the staff. One other point that I need to mention is that in this game, I witnessed one of the cheapest shots I can remember. Late in the game, LenDale White took a late hit to the head, and that was bad enough. But just after that, LenDale carried the ball again and his helmet came off. While on the ground without a helmet, LenDale got whacked in the head by Cal player number 56, Zach Follett. It was caught on tape and he was penalized. How this guy was not tossed from the game is beyond credibility. It really shows maturity on LenDale's part that he did not get up and retaliate. It would have been wrong to do so, but it would have also been understandable.
USC has now won 32 consecutive games and they will be home next week to take on the dangerous Fresno State Bulldogs. Fresno headcoach Pat Hill is an outspoken guy and he and his Fresno Bulldogs will get their shot next weeks. Their fans have been screaming for this game and so have their coaches. OK, they got it. Personally, I think Pete and his staff will have the Trojans eager, exceptionally well prepared and ready to go. I see no way that SC will overlook anyone and the players know that it is one game at a time. I can't help but think that the SC kids and staff will be disappointed with anything less than a win next week. As usual, SC will have to take one game at a time and my brain and heart tell me that SC will be ready. This team needs a week off to rest and heal, but before they can get that, they have one more item on the agenda. Only time will tell, but I have a good feeling about next week.