LaVale Woods took the handoff on USC’s first play from scrimmage and ran up the middle for 12 yards, and with that, the collective sigh of relief began.
Never mind that the sighing came uncomfortably close to hyperventilation in the fourth quarter after California cut USC’s 24-point halftime lead to 10 points.
The Trojans won, 27-17, and put the specter of a 0-3 start behind.
“We were 0-2. We needed a win,” said Woods, the newly anointed tailback who ran for 129 yards and two touchdowns--more than doubling USC’s season rushing total all by himself.
“The offensive line opened up holes anybody could have run through,” said Woods, whose first carry was the Trojans’ longest of the season. “It just feels great to get a win.”
The crowd of 54,282 at Memorial Stadium on Saturday had hoped to see Cal beat USC a second year in a row for the first time since 1958, but the Trojans were bent on a different result.
“It was like life and death to us,” said R. Jay Soward, who caught touchdown passes of 33 and 65 yard as USC took a 27-3 halftime lead. “We did win, so we don’t know how it would have felt if we hadn’t. I don’t want to think about that. We won.”
Woods’ first touchdown was set up when Rashard Cook intercepted a pass by Justin Vedder on Cal’s second play of the game, setting up USC’s first lead of the season when the Trojans scored with 7:17 left in the first quarter.
USC defeated a Cal team that started 2-0 with victories over Houston and Oklahoma, but the Trojans left themselves room for improvement.
“We’re happy with the win,” Coach John Robinson said. “You know, we were getting pretty uptight starting 0-2. We knew we were a better football team than that, and I believe we’re a better football team than we showed today.
“We’re not as bad as everybody thought we were last week.”
The Trojans couldn’t breathe easy until there was about a minute left, though, when cornerback Brian Kelly broke up Vedder’s desperation pass for Dameane Douglas on fourth and 25.
Back-to-back sacks by Chris Claiborne and Sultan Abdul-Malik helped hold the Bears, who were dangerous whenever Vedder looked for Bobby Shaw, in particular.
Kelly held Shaw as well as anyone could--and even then, Shaw had five catches for 98 yards and a touchdown.
“Not to be cocky, but we went out to shut him down,” said Kelly, who was on the sidelines having a dislocated finger taped when Shaw caught a 19-yard pass. “I came out and they went right at my area. All I could do was watch.”
Shaw also threw a pass on a fake field-goal attempt in the first half, setting up a first-and-goal for the Bears, but USC stuffed Tarik Smith three plays in a row and Cal settled for a field goal.
With a 27-3 halftime lead, USC looked as if it might be on its way to a rebound victory on the scale of UCLA’s 66-3 victory over Texas. But the Trojans didn’t score in the second half, wasting some good field position.
Cal scored the only touchdown of the third quarter after John McLaughlin blocked Jim Wren’s punt, and Justin Flagg recovered at the USC 25. Shaw scored on a 27-yard pass from Vedder, and Vedder passed to Shaw for the two-point conversion.
USC self-destructed on a possession with the ball in good field position, and Adam Abrams missed a 34-yard field goal attempt.
Cal made it closer by scoring with 3:53 left on Vedder’s 14-yard pass to Douglas, beating Chad Morton. The two-point conversion attempt was called back because of a penalty, and the second one failed, leaving Cal down by 10 points before its last-gasp attempt was thwarted.
USC answered some questions and raised some too. For one, how did it take until the third game of the season to hand the ball to their leading returning rusher?
Woods is a 5-foot-7, 220-pound senior whom everyone seems to overlook, but he established himself as the running back who can “push the pile” for USC--or ramble through gaping holes the offensive line created in easily its best performance of the year.
Woods’ 32 carries were the most by a Trojan since Mazio Royster had 32 against Michigan State in the 1990 John Hancock Bowl. His 100-yard game was USC’s first since the Oregon State game Sept. 14, 1996, when Chad Morton, a defensive back, ran for 143 while filling in at tailback and Woods ran for 122.
Delon Washington--who started this season as USC’s tailback but averaged only 18 yards the first two games--had five carries against Cal and finished with four yards.
Quarterback John Fox eliminated some of the game-management errors he made in the loss to Washington State two weeks ago, and he passed for 250 yards and two touchdowns, completing 15 of 28.
“The offense got rid of some ghosts that had been haunting us the last two weeks,” Robinson said. “We’re disappointed the offense didn’t do better the second half. We reverted to the way we played against Washington State, with the penalties.”
Errors and missteps don’t show in the win-loss record, though, just like the good things don’t show up in a loss.
“We just had to continue to believe we were the type of team we are,” Kelly said. “Coach kept telling us, it’s early.”