It has been quite a two-game stretch for Nelson Agholor.
Against Washington State two weeks ago Agholor set a career-high with 220 receiving yards, and he backed that up on Thursday night with 216 yards against Cal on 16 catches with a pair of touchdowns. It was the first time in USC history that a receiver had two straight games with 200 yards.
Granted, both WSU and Cal are ranked among the bottom five in passing yards allowed in the nation -- the Bears are dead last -- so there needs to be some context to those marks, but it doesn’t take away from the play-making ability that Agholor has shown in these games.
Agholor has been the leading receiver all season long for the Trojans' passing offense, and he has always been known as a guy who can make plays (he holds the USC career mark with four punt returns for touchdowns) but the way he stepped his game up in these past two games has been noticeable. It’s almost as if he is responding to some criticism he received at the end of the Utah game when he stepped out of bounds on a critical fourth-and-2 play at the end of the game, a situation when the junior captain certainly wanted the ball in his hands with the opportunity to close out the game.
Rather than let that missed opportunity linger, Agholor quickly put it behind him with a punt return score against Washington State early in that game, and he scored a touchdown on the opening USC drive against Cal as well. By the time halftime rolled around against the Bears, Agholor had 13 catches for 177 yards and had single-handedly outgained the Cal offense, which had 125 yards at that point.
USC coach Steve Sarkisian says it is no surprise to see Agholor produce like this after watching the way he prepares.
"I will credit Nelson on this," Sarkisian said. "I am a big believer that if you practice hard, the results show up on game day. This guy practices his tail off. After the Washington State game, the next day he was the first guy on the field, and we had no practice. He was catching balls on the jugs machine. Work ethic pays off, hard work pays off."
The sentiment is shared by Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler, who has long talked of the many offseason throwing sessions he would hold with his former roommate as a key to building the trust they share on the field.
"Nelson was great tonight," Kessler said after the Cal game. "I thought it was really cool to see, and it continued to show, in my opinion, that he’s the best receiver in the country. He’s a pro with the way he handles practice, we share the same work ethic."
One of the downsides of his production is the fact that it has increased speculation that Agholor, a draft-eligible junior, will declare to leave for the NFL. With 82 catches already this season, along with 1,079 yards and 10 touchdowns, the numbers are there to justify entertaining the possibility. However, there are two huge rivalry games left, and a bowl game, before any of that has to be dealt with. With the way he has been playing, Agholor still has a chance to add to those numbers in a big way and help the Trojans finish the season on a high note.