USC football is overcoming a difficult season by finding their identity

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first_imgIdentity is everything in the FBS, but not for the USC Trojans.In a season characterized by constant personnel loss and offensive restructuring, the Trojans (4-3) have an opportunity to advance in the Pac-12 South with a victory over the Cal Bears (4-3) tonight at the Coliseum.The Trojans are dealing with already having lost redshirt junior defensive tackle Kenny Bigelow, redshirt junior wide receiver Steven Mitchell Jr and Osa Masina.And while the Cal and USC men’s water polo teams have better chances to capture NCAA titles than do the football teams, a win on Thursday night could be the difference between rebuilding and restarting.“Any time you go seven games straight, you’re going to get some bumps and bruises,” head coach Clay Helton told the media after practice on Sunday. “They’re fresh. They’re bouncing with energy and great juice. That comes from being one game out of first place in the south. It’s an exciting time right now, and I’m looking forward to it.”Prior to their 52-6 drubbing at the hands of the Alabama Crimson Tide, the Trojans were identified as the 20th-best team in the nation. They were identified as the same run-and-shoot USC team that would bring in an experienced pocket passer and utilize their potential Heisman candidate running back to supply the fire for a defense that relied on its linemen up front.But, as much as tonight’s game is about rebuilding and restarting, it’s also about redefining, and four games ago, USC started its transformation.No longer is the prototypical pocket-passing quarterback Max Browne the starter. No longer is Ronald Jones II the bona fide Heisman candidate we thought he was, and no longer does USC’s passing defense struggle to contain opposing quarterbacks.The reason USC holds a 4-3 record in 2016 after an embarrassing loss on national television is because they allowed their own future plans to define them, not their past experiences or their opponents’ expectations.After losing three of their first four, redshirt freshman starting quarterback Sam Darnold has averaged 315 yards and 3.6 touchdowns on a 68-of-102 passing with 84 yards and a touchdown on the ground in his past three games.“The way [Browne] competed and performed was more than honorable, but the realism of football is when you’re 1-2 and you’ve scored one touchdown against Alabama and Stanford,” Helton said. “I want to see a spark in our offense, and I hope that Sam can bring that. I’m confident in it after watching three games of watching him perform, seeing him in the arena and seeing what he can do.”Instead of USC running just Jones, the Men of Troy have rushed for 175.5 yards per game thanks to a mix of Jones, senior Justin Davis, sophomores Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis.On defense, the Trojans have held their past three opponents to an average of 17 points per game and 52.4 percent completion through the air thanks to nine sacks, four interceptions and two fumble recoveries.Though Troy’s 2016 season is characterized with breaking expectations, there are certain facets of their identity that remain paramount to success.For example, the expectation of another top-10 season for junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is just starting to come to fruition — thanks to Darnold, however.Before Darnold, Smith-Schuster caught just 11 passes for 99 yards and two touchdowns. During Darnold’s tenure, Smith-Schuster has 29 receptions for 466 yards and six touchdowns.“Whenever I have the chance to get it out to him, I know he’s going to do something special with it,” Darnold said.Along with Smith-Schuster’s success, USC’s 11-game winning streak over Cal should remain an expectation that Helton’s squad hopes to maintain.Against Cal, a team that USC has defeated every season since 2003, the Trojans have the potential to start their ascension towards a Pac-12 title.Other than winning nearly 70 percent of their Thursday games, the Men of Troy hold an all-time 67-30-5 record versus the Golden Bears and a 56-17-1 line in games immediately following their bye week since 1995.No strangers to shattered expectations themselves, Cal’s head coach Sonny Dykes’ squad was projected to be an afterthought in the Pac-12. Instead, they’ve become the only team in the conference to down top-dog Utah, two top-25 teams and rank among the best in the nation for their exceptional passing offense.“Every time you play a team that scores 43 points, you better be scoring some points of your own. In this game, I don’t think field goals will be good enough,” Helton said. “We’ve really preached about being pros. They really want to be a good football team, and in order to do that, you need to put in the extra time.”Thanks to the efforts of Texas Tech-transfer senior quarterback Davis Webb (2,581 passing yards and 27 touchdowns) and senior running back Khalfani Muhammad (525 rushing yards and two touchdowns), Cal has averaged 43.7 offensive points per game this year.The only expected downside of Cal’s team has been their defense which ranks in the bottom 10 in total yards and points allowed.That considered, the Bears’ offense has managed to keep things close despite playing some of the Pac-12’s best.Excluding their 51-31 romp over Hawaii in week one, Cal has either won or lost by an average of 5.5 points. With such a slim margin of victory and defeat, the Trojans have to be careful toward the end of the game when every possession matters.Overall, this game will be about confirming or shattering expectations for both teams. If Cal pulls out a victory, it would be the first road victory against USC in over 15 seasons, while a USC victory would signal a complete fortune reversal from their abysmal 1-3 start and a potential route to a Pac-12 South title.One thing that will be for certain: Cal wants this game badly.“I don’t remember the score, but I remember the whipping we got my freshman year. Ever since then, the goal was to make sure we beat the crap out of them or die trying,” said Cal senior left guard Chris Borrayo to the San Francisco Chronicle. “It was a pretty nasty game my freshman year, and I don’t know if you guys understand this about USC: Class is not in their name. It’s something important to me and something very important to our team to know we’re going out there trying to win. I want to beat the crap out of USC.”last_img

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