Nelson Agholor's sharp focus comes into play in USC win

USC wide receiver Nelson Agholor carefully restricted his vision while he prepared for the Trojans' rare Thursday night game against the Cal Golden Bears at the Coliseum.

His teammates had said their goal after beating Washington State was to go 3-0 for the rest of November, against Cal, UCLA and Notre Dame. But when asked during a video interview with The Times' Lindsey Thiry earlier this week whether he thought a three-team sweep would be possible, Agholor politely said he wasn't looking that far ahead and was looking only at the immediate challenge.

"The first thing we need to do is handle Game 1. The only important game is Cal," he said, brushing aside talk of the Bruins and the Fighting Irish.

Asked about his own future — he's a junior and can declare for the NFL draft this spring — he stayed on his self-directed track. "I'm still worried about Cal right now," he said. "All I want to do is beat Cal."

Agholor was instrumental in easing that worry for himself and his teammates on Thursday, making history as the Trojans held on through a shaky second half for a 38-30 victory over Cal. Thanks to his 16 catches for 216 yards and two touchdowns, the Trojans (7-3 overall, 6-2 in the Pac-12 South) can continue pursuing that perfect month and look forward to the most important and memorable part of their season.

Does that mean Agholor is ready to think about UCLA now?

"That's the next game," he said.

That approach worked for him Thursday. Agholor became a one-man wrecking crew in the first half while recording his fourth consecutive game of 100 or more receiving yards. He also became the first Trojan to record back-to-back games of 200 or more receiving yards, following his eight-catch, 220-yard performance against Washington State.

With former USC teammate and 2012 Biletnikoff award winner Marqise Lee looking on, Agholor caught touchdown passes of 10 and nine yards from Cody Kessler in the first half, adding to the nightmares Agholor had caused Cal last season by returning two punts for touchdowns against them in a 62-28 rout at Berkeley.

His 16 receptions left him one short of the school record set by Robert Woods against Minnesota in 2011, and he had one touchdown reception called back. Afterward, he repeated that he hadn't been tempted to look past Cal to UCLA.

"This was the next game," he said. "And this is a very, very tough game, and you have to focus in because the guy across from you may have bad intentions for you and you have to focus in on handling the game right here."

Sounds simple, but it took considerable effort.

Then again, putting in effort is nothing unusual for Agholor. His success hasn't come from luck, though he was quick to praise the rest of the Trojans receiving corps and said he was fortunate to get the opportunity to make significant contributions the past few weeks.

"What people don't see is his work ethic," said receiver George Farmer, who caught two passes for 40 yards and one touchdown.

"In practice, he's taking as many reps as possible, and he's watching extra film. He's just a great leader. I think that all plays into it and how it shows on the field. Those 200-yard games aren't for nothing. He's been working for that very hard."

Coach Steve Sarkisian agreed. "That guy practices his tail off every time we go out there," he said, noting that Agholor was the first player on the practice field after his outstanding performance against Washington State.

"Work ethic pays off. Hard work pays off."

With Washington State and Cal out of the way, the Trojans' second season will begin. The last two years, they've lost to both UCLA and Notre Dame; before that, Lane Kiffin beat UCLA and lost to Notre Dame in 2010 and swept both in 2011. Pete Carroll was 8-1 against UCLA and against Notre Dame.

Sarkisian will be forgiven a lot if he can beat UCLA and Notre Dame. A big "if." Two big "ifs," really.

Agholor was asked what the key will be for USC in those games, but he stayed with his one-game-at-a-time mantra.

"Attack next week with a real good focus," he said. "It's not about the rivalry. It's about it being the next game and the team that's trying to stop us from our goals."

There's something to focus on.

Twitter: @helenenothelen

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times