Final Thoughts: Cal review

The Rose Bowl. That is the goal, every year, for the players, coaches and fans of the USC football program. To achieve that goal, the team must win the Pac-10 conference, as the Trojans did on Saturday by virtue of their 23-9 victory over the California Golden Bears at the Coliseum.

It is the fifth straight conference title for the Trojans, a feat never before accomplished in Pac-10 football, yet Pasadena might not be the final destination for this team with national championship aspirations.

To capture the Pac-10 and earn a Rose Bowl berth is tremendous for a team that came into the season with so many doubters who chose to focus on who had left the team rather than who was remaining. To watch the way this team has grown has been a pleasure, they are not the dynamic and high scoring machine we have seen in the past but they are a gritty and determined team who finds a way to win football games and their accomplishments deserve to stand on their own.

We saw signs from all areas of the kind of team USC is against the Bears. If you want veteran leaders, look no further than Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith as they provided the touchdown plays which put the game away for the Trojans. An efficient quarterback? John David Booty put up the kind of numbers you want to see from your signal-caller and he made the big throws when it counted. How about a talented freshman? Give C.J. Gable all the credit in the world for his contributions running and catching the ball tonight as he was arguably the player of the game for USC. How do you also not mention the defense? They were terrific. They only allowed one scoring drive by the Bears, which was helped by two big pass plays, but other than that they held the explosive Cal attack in check. Even the Trojan special teams got into the act as Mario Danelo hit both of his field goal attempts, the punt team held Desean Jackson all night and, oh yeah, there was a long field goal by little-used David Buehler which basically provided the spark to push the Trojans to victory.

The game got started with a clear message that the Trojans were here to play ball. All week long we heard the ramblings of Desean Jackson, much of it directed in a negative manner toward USC, but on the first drive it was Kevin Ellison who delivered the blow on Jackson to remind him to mind his manners as a guest in the Trojans house. It was the kind of hit that staggered Jackson, he eventually returned to the game but he was never really a factor.

A pair of early touchdowns, one for each side, were called back due to penalties and for a while at the beginning it looked like it might be a wild night of scoring. That didn't end up being the case although the scoring did open in the first quarter with Mario Danelo hitting a 19 yard field to make it 3-0 after the Trojans had marched 88 yards on a 14 play drive.

Cal came right back and drove to midfield but then Nate Longshore tried to hit Desean deep and Taylor Mays was able to make a great read on the ball to pull down the interception inside the Trojan five yard line. On the first USC play from scrimmage, running back Chauncey Washington took the handoff and was met immediately by Brandon Mebane for a safety to make it 3-2 in favor of the Trojans. The Trojans had three players who were in a position to make a block on Mebane (Ryan Kalil, Chilo Rachal or Thomas Williams) but all three took off in a different direction and Brandon was left with a clear path to Chauncey.

After the safety, USC was forced to punt the ball and Desean returned it 12 yards to once again give the Bears possession near midfield. A couple Marshawn Lynch runs helped move the ball to the Trojan 26 yard line but then Lawrence Jackson came in on the pass rush and Longshore stepped right into him, a fumble was forced and the ball rolled into the waiting arms of Sedrick Ellis for the 2nd turnover of the night. Unfortunately, the Trojans couldn't do anything with this one either but Greg Woidneck got off a timely 52 yard punt with Shareece Wright hustling down to tackle Desean at the Cal ten yard line. After Cal went three and out, they punted and the Trojans drove down for another Danelo field goal to make the score 6-2 in favor of SC.

On the ensuing kickoff, Thomas Williams once again showed why he has earned the nickname "Hitman" over the years with a crushing tackle that forced a fumble, it looked for a second like a Trojan recovery but Cal got the ball back in the scrum. The Bears proceeded to put together their one good drive of the night which Longshore finished off by hitting a touchdown pass to take the lead at 9-6 and that's the way we went into halftime.

Little did the Bears know that the USC defense was about to stiffen and the Trojan offense was going to come alive midway through the third quarter. To that point in the game, Chauncey Washington and the rest of the SC ground game had not been able to get much going as Chauncey was battling the lingering effects of a banged up knee suffered last week against Oregon. Not to worry, in stepped Gable and when he ripped off a big 24 yard run at the 5:45 mark of the third quarter it seemed to provide a spark for the team. Another nice completion from Booty to Jarrett moved the ball closer but then the drive stalled and Pete Carroll was forced to make a decision. It was 4th and 15 from the Cal 32 yard line. Do you go for it? That's an awful long fifteen yards to pick up. How about a Danelo field goal attempt? We all love Mario but a 49 yard kick is probably just out of his range. After calling a timeout and thinking it over, Carroll turned to David Buehler, a kicker who hadn't tried a field goal this year but who takes reps in practice as the designated long field goal specialist. Buehler also practices as a reserve fullback so he was wearing a thick neck roll for the game, not a normal sight on a kicker. In true dramatic fashion, Buehler nailed the kick and all of a sudden the game was tied and the Trojans picked up the momentum.

Another three and out for the Bears and then it was Gable again who provided a big play when he took a screen pass from Booty, followed a nice block from Allen Bradford, and scooted 35 yards through the Cal defense to put the ball inside the red zone. Two plays later Booty stepped back into a terrific pocket provided by the offensive line and he threw a bullet to Jarrett on a skinny post pass for a touchdown. It was a wonderful play from start to finish. Kudos to the o-line for giving John David time when he needed it. The throw was Carson Palmer-esque, absolutely gunned in there to the middle of the 8 on Dwayne's chest. And how about the catch? Jarrett got hit immediately as he caught the ball, he later said he blanked out after he was hit, yet he held on and the Trojans had a 16-9 advantage.

After the kickoff, Cal went three and out again on offense, thanks particularly to a good play on third down by Kevin Ellison to read a screen to Lynch and hold the play to two yards. Following a punt that gave the Trojans the ball near midfield they put together a drive that would put the game out of reach and it featured an offensive play call that fired up the Coliseum crowd.

Facing a fourth and two situation from the Cal 37, it was decision time once again for Carroll and staff. According to reports, it was Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian who screamed for the opportunity to pass the ball. Let's end this game right here, right now. Carroll was leaning to a more conservative option but he elected to go with the pass play. Good decision, coach. Booty had plenty of time once again thanks to a good pocket, time enough for him to check off to his third receiver on the play and that was Steve Smith who had got behind talented Cal defensive back Daymeion Hughes and the play went for a touchdown. Game, set, match Trojans and thanks for coming Cal.

From that point on it was just continued dominance by the Trojan defense as the fourth quarter time ran out. USC held the Cal offense to only 96 total yards in the second half and you have to like holding them to nine points when they came in averaging more than 34 per game. Terrell Thomas deserves credit for a great job in coverage on Desean Jackson all night. Kevin Ellison led the team with seven tackles. Dallas Sartz made a good play in pass coverage late in the game. When Mozique McCurtis picked off a final Longshore pass, it was finally over and the Trojans came away with a satisfying win.

There was a lot of talk afterwards about the pride of being conference champions and how happy we are to qualify for the Rose Bowl but, let's face it, the current climate of college football has forced us to also keep an eye on the possibilities that exist for the BCS title game. A bunch of computers and polls will eventually decide which team faces Ohio State in Arizona on January 8th and the only thing the Trojans can do to help themselves is continue to win on the field. Of course, that brings to mind a little game next week.

The Irish are coming to town and, as if the game needed any more build up, this one will be huge with the national championship implications at hand. Notre Dame sits just behind USC in the polls and you can be sure they think an upset victory over the Trojans would help propel them into position to face the Buckeyes. That is just one of the many subplots that will be present for this game. My guess is we will hear the words "4th and 9" and "Bush Push" about a million times this week and there won't be a single Trojan fan who will get tired of re-living that game last year. We will hear about the coaching rivalry between Carroll and Weis. We will hear endless stories about Brady Quinn. We might even hear a comment or two about how long the grass will be at the Coliseum for the game. Is there any player who will get a louder ovation than Desmond Reed? If the football gods are listening, please let Desmond go dancing past Charlie on the sideline during a long punt return. That would be such sweet justice.

Today we celebrate the Cal win and then we make the transition toward the Irish. The Trojan November month of fun continues and it sure has been great to watch so far.


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