His backs were behind him
There was a running joke in the USC huddle on Saturday, the guys on offense comparing themselves to a car. And with freshman Matt Barkley starting at quarterback, it was like having a beginner at the wheel.
So the tailbacks decided to pitch in.
“It was up to us to help him out,” Stafon Johnson said. “Give him a push-start.”
More like a turbocharge.
The Trojans’ ground game made Barkley’s introduction to college football a whole lot easier by covering 342 yards -- 7.6 yards per carry -- and scoring six touchdowns in a 56-3 victory over San Jose State at the Coliseum.
Joe McKnight led the way, bouncing back from an early fumble to gain a career-best 145 yards and score twice. But he was only part of the story on a day when Johnson, Allen Bradford and Marc Tyler made big plays against an overmatched opponent. “That’s why SC’s so good,” San Jose State defensive end Carl Ihenacho said. “They have a bunch of backs and they all do something different.”
The Trojans needed the running game to hit on all cylinders after getting off to a sluggish start, trailing the underdog Spartans, 3-0, after a quarter.
There wasn’t anything complicated about jump-starting the offense. The line began opening holes and, as McKnight said, “the only thing we had to do was run.”
The junior broke free a couple of times early and helped set up USC’s first score, a four-yard run by Johnson. Midway through the second quarter, with Barkley looking more assured, Johnson scored again for a 14-3 lead.
“It was huge,” Barkley said of the ground game. “It really opened up the rollout [passes] because they had to stop the run.”
At that point, for the tailbacks, it was pretty much off to the races.
The powerful Bradford burst through the line and sprinted for a career-long 43-yard touchdown in the second quarter. After halftime, McKnight skipped outside, then cut back toward the middle, dodging three tacklers and outracing the rest of the defense for a 54-yard score.
C.J. Gable got into the act with 17 yards in three straight carries.
Then, in the fourth quarter, Marc Tyler zigzagged across the field no fewer than three times before running out of gas at the six-yard line.
“I went 150 yards back and forth,” he said. “I got tired.”
The 63-yard gain -- another career best -- set up his one-yard touchdown dive two plays later.
It was that kind of day for a position group that needed a boost for two reasons.
First, the tailbacks had been overshadowed by USC’s quarterback controversy in recent weeks. Second, it can be tough carrying the ball for the Trojans, sharing time with three or four teammates. Talented runners such as Emmanuel Moody and Broderick Green have lost patience and transferred.
“You have to be strong to stick it out,” Bradford said.
After the game, running backs coach Todd McNair stood at the entrance to the tunnel that leads to the locker room and searched out his guys, offering congratulations.
“Look at them, they’re all happy,” he said. “They’re all having fun.”
In the process, they spread the joy to a certain young quarterback who got through his first game with decent numbers, no turnovers and -- most important -- a victory.
All Barkley needed was a little help from his tailbacks.
“After that,” Johnson said, “he was rollin’.”