USC grinds out 27-9 win over Cal


USC achieved its goal, defeating California and erasing the hurt of last week’s loss at Stanford.

But the Trojans’ 27-9 victory on Saturday at the Coliseum was, at times, painful to watch.

And not just for the fans who came out to see whether the Trojans’ defeat at Palo Alto was a stumble or a harbinger of things to come.

“It wasn’t perfect,” Coach Lane Kiffin said. “We screwed some things up on offense, but I think our guys played really hard, played physical.

“That very easily could have been a hangover game.”

Buoyed by the return of center Khaled Holmes, USC’s much-maligned offensive line did not give up a sack and cleared the way for tailbacks Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, who rushed for a combined 273 yards.

The defensive line also rebounded from being pushed around by Stanford, sacking Cal quarterback Zach Maynard seven times. And safeties Jawanza Starling and T.J. McDonald intercepted passes.

Those performances helped the No. 13 Trojans improve to 3-1 overall and 1-1 in the Pac-12 Conference.

And they also blurred the fact that quarterback Matt Barkley had two more passes intercepted. And that Robert Woods and Marqise Lee dropped passes. And that McNeal and Redd fumbled. And that the Trojans had an apparent touchdown nullified by a holding penalty by Holmes.

Against a better opponent — say, Stanford or Oregon — those mistakes might have ended the Trojans’ hopes of staying in the hunt for a national title.

But this was Cal, which has now lost nine consecutive games against USC.

So on a warm and muggy afternoon, USC amassed 488 yards and repeatedly shut down Cal inside the 20-yard line en route to victory.

“It’s fun winning, 50-0, and that doesn’t happen every week, unfortunately,” Kiffin said. “And so some games are going to be like this.”

McNeal, who rushed for 1,005 yards last season, said last week that the Trojans needed to depend on more than Barkley, Lee and Woods.

Kiffin gave the running backs an opportunity to play a bigger role.

“Coach Kiff said, ‘We’re going to run the ball down their throat,’” McNeal said. “And that’s what we did.”

Redd rushed for 158 yards and a touchdown in 21 carries. McNeal rushed for 115 yards in 10 carries.

“I was surprised,” Cal defensive back Steve Williams said. “They didn’t have a running attack in the previous two games. But they came out here … and pounded the ball down the middle.”

The running game took pressure off Barkley, who was sacked four times and harassed into two interceptions against Stanford.

On Saturday, the senior connected with Lee for two touchdowns. But he had a pass intercepted in the end zone on the first possession. Another was picked off in the third quarter after it was tipped.

Barkley, who completed 22 of 34 passes for 192 yards, was happy with the Trojans’ overall performance but lamented not capitalizing on more opportunities.

“Hopefully,” he said, “we don’t repeat the way we won.”

The Trojans would welcome another defensive performance like Saturday’s.

End Morgan Breslin had three sacks, tackle Leonard Williams two and tackle George Uko and end Wes Horton each added one.

McDonald said the defense started preparing immediately after the Stanford loss.

“We just had a mad team,” he said.

USC led, 17-3, at halftime on a touchdown run by Redd, a touchdown pass from Barkley to Lee and a field goal by Andre Heidari, who returned after being sidelined for two games because of a knee injury.

Cal drove inside the 20 three times in the third quarter. The first two ended with field goals, pulling the Golden Bears to within 17-9, and McDonald’s interception ended the third threat.

A Heidari field goal early in the fourth quarter pushed the margin to 11 points and Barkley sealed the win with a short touchdown pass to Lee with 6:22 left.

USC has an open date this week before playing at Utah on Oct. 4. Kiffin said he welcomes the break.

“We need it,” he said. “We’re pretty beat up.”

But not hurting anymore.