USC works hard to find joy in victory over California

At halftime of USC’s 30-20 victory over California on Saturday, in the locker room under California Memorial Stadium, USC confronted its own expectations.

The Trojans were not losing. The score was tied at 13-13. And still, USC’s captains took turns ripping into the team.

"I was pretty explicit," safety Chris Hawkins said.

Quarterback Sam Darnold went next. He didn’t say much, according to teammates, but he got his point across.

"They didn't even have to say anything, we felt their vibes,” nickel back Ykili Ross said. “We were playing down to the Cal Bears' level. I don't wanna throw any subliminals, but, you know, we feel that we're the best. So we gotta play like that. All the time. Every week."

USC finds itself in an odd position. The Trojans are 4-0 and 2-0 in the Pac-12 Conference. Their defense stole six turnovers from Cal on Saturday. They have now gone exactly a year since their last loss. They own the nation’s second-longest winning streak, at 13. They have two quality wins over Stanford and Texas.

Yet they also have designs on a larger prizes. And they have not played to that level, all the time, every week.

Often, USC has waited to play its best until just enough time remained. On Saturday, USC outplayed Cal (3-1, 0-1) for only only three minutes and 59 seconds. But it made that time count.

With the score still 13-13 in the fourth quarter, the Trojans’ offense once again fizzled out and settled for a Chase McGrath field goal, this one from 46 yards. The walk-on made it, his third of the day. There was 14:05 remaining.

On the very next play, defensive tackle Josh Fatu rumbled into quarterback Ross Bowers, bumping the ball loose and right into the hands of outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu on the three-yard line.

USC punched the ball into the end zone on a Stephen Carr run for a 23-13 lead.

Two plays later, Bowers heaved a pass into heavy coverage. Ross called off Hawkins to make the interception, and he returned it 49 yards to Cal’s 33-yard line. USC converted that for a touchdown on Darnold's four-yard pass to Deontay Burnett.

The outburst netted USC 17 points and avoided a hairy ending, even though Cal outgained USC 416 yards to 356.

Cal took the first loss of new coach Justin Wilcox’s career in front of 46,747 fans. Wilcox, a former USC defensive coordinator, made Darnold uncomfortable. He double-teamed Burnett and made Darnold find another open option.

That was not always easy, without Steven Mitchell Jr., who was out with a groin injury. The Bears kept a tight lid on USC’s receivers. Darnold completed only one pass over 15 yards, and that was for only 19 yards. He finished 26 of 38 for 223 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

"They've been rough two games,” Darnold said of a stretch that included Saturday’s win and a double-overtime win over Texas. “But we're 2-0 in that stretch, so that's really all that matters to me, and I know that's all that matters to the team.”

With starter Ronald Jones II injured, Carr started and rushed for 82 yards and a touchdown in 20 rushes. He also caught six passes for 47 yards.

USC again struggled to convert on third and fourth downs. USC converted on only six of 15 third downs and failed twice on fourth down.

The Trojans have gone for five fourth downs this season. They have converted none of them.

"The ball is being moved,” Coach Clay Helton said. “I don't think that's the issue. It's really us finishing drives, because you could've separated yourself in the first half with really three drives. Your on Cal's side of the field, and we just don't get it done. We have two turnovers and a fourth-and-one stop.”

USC’s players appeared more relieved than anything afterward. Helton has made revelry an emphasis this season. He tells his players after each victory that they should take time to celebrate. He doesn’t want a win to feel disappointing.

If USC had anything to celebrate, it was its forced turnovers. USC likes to run the ball to the sideline after a turnover and present it personally to Helton. He got a lot of gifts on Saturday. Jack Jones had two more interceptions. Defensive end and outside linebacker Christian Rector forced another fumble. Hawkins intercepted a pass late.

Outside the locker room after the game, Hawkins teased Ross that he let Ross have the earlier pick.

"I didn't take it, I gave it to him,” Hawkins said.

Hawkins stepped back and faced Ross nearby so Ross could hear, then raised his voice.

“I could've took it if I wanted to,” Hawkins said. “Y'all seen, I was right there."

Ross laughed. It was his first career interception. “Thank you,” he said.

Up the hallway, linebacker Cameron Smith acknowledged that USC could get better. But, he said, his teammates’ festivity was warranted.

"All that matters is that we got the win," Smith said. "We're not going to mope over wins."

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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