SAN FRANCISCO – For six weeks, this USC football team survived with a style that was intricate, even stylish at times, but ultimately unconvincing.
Thursday night, at a baseball stadium where the home team won a championship by keeping the other team from scoring, the Trojans finally showed their obstinate side. It was disruptive, ugly at times, alternately impressive and drab. But the USC defense, having allowed 84 points the previous two weeks, finally closed the circle.
Thursday’s 30-9 win over Cal at AT&T Park might have been the first inkling we’ve had that this can be a complete team.
“It was much more important for this team to win like that, have a game like that for our confidence, after all the things our defense has been hearing about, the staff, the players, everyone involved,” coach Lane Kiffin said.
The Cal offense, perhaps gassed after its brush with Oregon the week before, couldn’t have looked much more feeble and halting. The USC offense was better only in its ability to hold onto the ball.
Cal rushed for 35 yards and turned the ball over five times. The USC pass rush wasn’t so much explosive as relentless, keeping quarterback Zach Maynard flustered and Cal’s brilliant receiver, Keenan Allen, in check.
The USC linebackers, which have been a worry since Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews and Rey Maualuga left en masse a couple of years ago, made game-changing plays. When was the last time that happened? The catalyst, apparently, has been redshirt freshman Dion Bailey, vastly undersized but with a nose for the ball. Bailey picked off two passes and recovered a fumble, led the team with eight tackles and made some punishing hits. Chris Galippo held onto another interception, stuffed right between the “5” and the “4” on his jersey, that led to a chip-shot field goal.
Defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said he saw in his players’ eyes that this was going to be a turning-point week. It had that feel, but nobody’s going to view it that way if the Trojans travel to Notre Dame next week and revert to their form against the Arizona schools, when the defense seemed to be only a phantom.
USC is 5-1 (3-1 in the conference), but even the players and staff seem to be in wait-and-see mode. Maybe that’s because three of their next five games are on the road and two of the next five are against Stanford and Oregon.
“It’s definitely not a super-confidence boost. We don’t think that we’re the best team in the country,” Bailey said. “We’ve got things to work on, but this is going to sit well with us. Our defense showed up today and our offense didn’t have its best game, but on its worst day still put up 30.”
The heat from USC fans has been directed as much, or more, at the coaches as the players. People wondered if Monte Kiffin’s schemes worked at the college level. There was grumbling about a lack of halftime adjustments.
But the coaches figured the best way to control Allen’s legs was to move Maynard's feet. They sacked him three times and flushed him most of the night.
“We had a great game plan and the guys played it well,” Orgeron said.
Of course, this team continues to scramble after the elusive complete game, something it hasn’t produced since the Cal game last season, when it took a 42-0 lead into halftime. Quarterback Matt Barkley couldn’t find his timing and receiver Robert Woods looked frustrated by constant attention from a safety.
Injuries became a worry, too, when receiver Marqise Lee sprained his shoulder and Marc Tyler dislocated his. Maybe this is the point of the season where the defense has to shoulder the burden, maybe grind out a couple of ugly wins. A year ago, that would have seemed like a laughable suggestion, but now it’s only a dubious one.
“We’re going to have our downs, but we’re going to have our ups as well,” Bailey said. “We’re not just going to lie down and give up a bunch of points each game.”
It’s a start.