LOS ANGELES -- There is an old saying in football: "In order to run the ball, you need to run the ball."
The Trojans had been looking to establish their ground game through the first three weeks of the season but hadn't seen too much consistent success. Of course, the inability to control a game on the ground also led to inconsistencies with the overall offense, as the rushing attack goes hand-in-hand with the throwing game.
As USC prepared to play California on Saturday at the Coliseum, there were many questions for the Trojans about how effective the run game would be, as it was unknown if starting center Khaled Holmes would be available -- he missed the Stanford game because of injury -- and there were also other potential injury issues with the line.
Well, those run game concerns can be set aside, at least for now, as the Trojans put on one of their most dominant rushing performances in recent memory to help defeat the Golden Bears 27-9.
"I thought our backs ran hard from the start," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "Having Khaled [Holmes] back makes a big difference when it comes to running the ball. He's a leader on our team and I thought the game was won at the line of scrimmage."
When all was said and done, the Trojans rushed for 296 yards on 40 carries against Cal -- an average of 7.4 yards per rush -- and had two runners reach the 100-yard mark. Silas Redd gained 158 yards on 21 carries with one touchdown and Curtis McNeal added 115 yards on 10 carries. It was the first time USC had multiple 100-yard rushers since 2008 against Washington State.
Through the first three games of the season, USC had averaged 28 rush attempts per game and 4.3 yards per rush, so it was a dramatic difference to suddenly get more carries and average three more yards per run attempt. Even more than the added yards, however, was the attitude that came with the ground success.
"We were very angry about last week and wanted to redeem ourselves," USC right tackle Kevin Graf said. "We went over what we wanted to do this week in practice and it all worked out. It was good to run for 300 yards. The difference from last week to this week was we just wanted to play better and do better. We just worked that much harder."
It got started early with McNeal breaking off a 62-yard scamper on the Trojans' opening possession to move the ball inside the Cal 10-yard line. USC eventually turned the ball over on a Matt Barkley interception in the end zone, but it was a boost for USC to get a big play from McNeal. The Trojans offense had taken off in 2011 when McNeal was inserted into the lineup as he provided explosive play after explosive play. The fact that he had a big one so early against Cal was a sign of good things to come for USC.
On the next Trojans possession, Redd broke loose on a 33-yard touchdown run to open the scoring, and Holmes could be seen pumping his fist in the air in excitement as Redd crossed the goal line.
The Trojans tried to get the passing game going as well -- they ended up throwing 22 first-half passes compared to 13 rushes -- but that ratio changed once the game entered the third quarter with USC ahead 17-9.
McNeal had fumbled the ball near midfield to give Cal possession and a chance to get back into the game and possibly tie the score. The Bears drove into the USC red zone, but a Zach Maynard pass was intercepted by T.J. McDonald at the Trojans 7-yard line and danger was averted. After that, it was time for the running game.
As the Trojans looked to finish the game off in the fourth quarter, they even broke out the old "Student Body Left" pitch play of USC lore. Redd made a nice gain on the play but just as important was the reaction from USC coaches Kennedy Polamalu and James Cregg, who came off the sideline to give the offensive linemen a pat on the behind for their aggressive blocks.
"From the first play we were in full force and we didn't take our foot off the pedal," Redd said. "We bounced back this week and I couldn't be more happy."
It remains to be seen where the Trojans will go from here with the ground game. Any offense with Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee is never going to be completely focused on the run, but it's nice for the Trojans to know it's there when they need it. It's not like the Trojans are void of running talent with a pair of 1,000-yard rushers from last season (Redd gained 1,241 yards at Penn State) and four of five starters returning on the offensive line. But it's not always that easy.
Running the ball takes commitment. It takes the willingness to stick with it even if it isn't always working or if your passing game is putting on an aerial circus. Against Cal the Trojans stayed with it -- even after the McNeal fumble -- and were rewarded with a performance that helped bring home the much-needed win.