USC tailback Tre Madden ran headlong into a pile of California defensive players, and for a moment all of the Trojans’ optimism felt like it was sucked out of Strawberry Canyon.
It was third down, late in the fourth quarter at sun-drenched Memorial Stadium, and the Trojans appeared on the verge of giving the game away to the Golden Bears.
But Madden, a fifth-year senior, bounced off the pile and broke to the outside with determination for a first down. Three plays later, tailback Justin Davis converted another tough third down.
“Grown-man runs,” USC interim Coach Clay Helton said.
Those two plays — and a fourth-down touchdown run by Madden earlier in the game — characterized the resurgent Trojans in Saturday’s 27-21 victory.
USC’s defense also came up big for the second consecutive game, forcing three turnovers, including an interception Adoree’ Jackson returned for a touchdown, to help the Trojans remain on track for a shot at the Pac-12 Conference South Division title.
“We’re still here,” receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster said.
USC improved to 5-3 overall and 3-2 in the Pac-12 heading into next week’s game against Arizona.
The victory, coming a week after USC defeated previously unbeaten Utah, makes the Trojans 2-1 under Helton, 2-0 in what they call “the second half” of the season.
“Everybody’s just having fun,” linebacker Su’a Cravens said of the mood under Helton. “He wants everybody to have fun. He’s a players’ coach.”
Helton also appears to be intent on establishing the Trojans as a physical team.
USC rushed the ball 50 times and passed it only 23.
“We have a formula right now to run the ball, stop the run and don’t turn the ball over,” Helton said.
Freshman tailback Ronald Jones II ran for a team-best 80 yards and a touchdown, Madden rushed for 62 yards and a touchdown and Davis added 42 yards in the Trojans’ 12th straight victory over Cal (5-3, 2-3)
“It just establishes our physical nature,” Madden said. “We hear a lot that we’re not as physical as past teams or teams even in the Pac-12. And we just want to execute that and establish ourselves as a physical team.”
USC proved, however, that it was also still capable of making game-changing plays. The Trojans saw that happen within a span of 23 seconds in the third quarter.
Facing fourth-and-two near the goal line on the first possession of the second half, Helton decided to put the ball in the hands of Madden.
“It was a confidence call,” Helton said, “really a statement call.”
Madden scored to put USC ahead, 17-7.
On the first play of the ensuing series, Jackson picked off a pass by Cal quarterback Jared Goff and returned it 46 yards for a touchdown.
It was Jackson’s first career interception.
“I was just ready to go to the house,” the sophomore said. “It’s the first one, might as well.”
Cal pulled to within 24-14, but the Trojans took a 13-point lead into the fourth quarter after Alex Wood’s second field goal.
Cal cut the deficit to six points on Goff’s second touchdown pass of the game with 3 minutes 52 seconds remaining.
The Trojans suddenly found themselves in a position to do something they have struggled at, finishing a close game, and Madden’s 14-yard, third-down burst off the right side ignited them.
“That play got me hyped,” Davis said. “Just to see him extend a play, break a tackle and make a play made me want to do the same.”
Davis essentially clinched the victory with his four-yard run to the left.
Now the Trojans are looking at a four-game finish in their drive to make Helton the permanent head coach. USC plays Arizona and then at Colorado before traveling to Oregon and finishing with UCLA.
Helton said he is becoming more comfortable as the head coach.
“I still wasn’t perfect today,” he said. “There are still some things I have to get corrected, but thank goodness for a bunch of great players and a great staff.
“They hide a lot of things I may mess up on.”