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Top Takeaways From USC's 38-30 Win Over Cal

USC jumped out early, held on for a close Pac-12 win

The defense held on for dear life on Thursday night.
The defense held on for dear life on Thursday night.
Harry How

The USC Trojans rode the back of a record-setting performance from Nelson Agholor for a close win over Cal. The game was seemingly out of hand late in the second quarter, as USC led 31-2 at the Coliseum, but the California Golden Bears matriculated the ball with ease in the fourth quarter keeping hope alive.

Penalties dominated the headlines, but the Trojans found a way to overcome sloppy mistakes on both sides of the football for a 38-point performance. Following the victory, USC secures a seven-win season under first-year head coach Steve Sarkisian with big games against UCLA and Notre Dame in the closing weeks of the season.

Despite concerns in the closing moments, the Trojans were able to squeak out a win moving to 6-2 in Pac-12 play preparing for an intriguing tilt with cross-town rival UCLA.

Nelson Agholor: Playmaker

While Buck Allen was struggling to really get anything going on the ground, junior wideout Nelson Agholor put forth his best effort of the season. Playing in front of the watchful eyes of former teammate and mentor Marqise Lee, the Trojan stalwart target caught 16 passes (one shy of tying Robert Woods' USC record) for 216 yards and two touchdowns.

Agholor caught 13 balls in the first half alone, moving the chains on third downs numerous times for the offense. The confident wideout was talking a good game to the Cal defense and gave them nightmares all night long. This fantastic performance in the passing game gives Agholor back-to-back 200-yard outing for the first such occurrence for a USC Trojan wideout in the history of the program.

The Cody Kessler-to-Nelson Agholor connection has been on point this season, and the junior wide receiver continues to develop into an elite-level playmaker. That was quite honestly a Marqise Lee-like performance, circa the 2012 monstrous game on the road in Tuscon.

This time, however, USC had enough in the tank to win the game.

Penalties For Days

In a perfectly crafted response, USC head coach Steve Sarkisian voiced his displeasure over the Pac-12 officiating crew that handed out an enormous amount of penalty flags:

"I am going to refrain from a getting a fine."

The overall numbers were quite outstanding. Both teams combined for 25 total penalties, amassing 280 yards of total offense...through Pac-12 penalties of course. Cal essentially drove right down the field due to penalties in that fourth quarter, setting up two quick scores that put fear into the 64,000 announced in the crowd.

One of the worst sequences derailed two massive plays from USC. The first of which started on a bubble screen out wide to the left where Agholor dashed 60 yards across to the other side of the field for an awesome touchdown. Whistles brought back the play, one of three touchdowns (by either squad) called back by penalty.

Both teams made some egregious plays, and the moral of the story is that when in doubt leave the shenanigans to the referees and stay far away from holding, face masks or late hits near the sideline. Did we mention that Cody Kessler got a taunting penalty after a sick touchdown pass? I know coach Sark was upset, but that's just awesome.

Bend But Don't Break Defense

USC was on point in the first half, limiting Cal to under 100 yards of total offense. The pressure was coming from all over the field, which allowed more yards of penalties than total yards through three quarters. Led by a nice return performance from Su'a Cravens, who played less than two weeks after being gingerly helped off the field in pain against Washington State, the Trojans were aggressive at the line of scrimmage.

Justin Wilcox's unit set the tone from the very start, limiting Cal to multiple three-and-out drives in the first quarter. While Cal got some points on a safety, the Trojans continued a dominant streak in the first quarter now outscoring their opponents 129 to 22 during the regular season.

"At the end of the day we still have a job to do," senior safety Gerald Bowman told after the game. "We just have to come out and execute."

Leonard Williams had another multi-sack performance and the combination of Greg Townsend Jr. and Scott Felix did a fine job of creating pressure on Cal's sophomore gun slinger Jared Goff. Cal averages over 40 points per game, and the first three quarters of defense were rather impressive --given how many weapons the Golden Bears have.

Randall Telfer Got Invovled

The Trojans made a conscious effort to get senior tight end Randall Telfer involved in the offense. While freshman Bryce Dixon was not permitted to play after he violated school conduct policy, the Trojans need Randall Telfer to be an active contributor in both pass protection/run blocking and the vertical passing game.

Telfer was given an opportunity right on the first drive. The play resulted in what was originally called a catch and fumble, but then flipped to an incompletion over the middle. He got another opportunity later in the half, finishing the play with a one-yard reception. USC gave Telfer another chance resulting in something we hadn't seen since the end of the 2012 season, a Trojan senior made a touchdown catch.

"The goal going forward is to be 4-0 in November," Randall Telfer said to after the hard-fought win. "But right now we are 2-0."

Given the lack of consistency USC's been given at the tight end position, the option of Telfer or Dixon making plays will only help add to the an explosive passing attack. The middle of the field has become a nice piece of real estate for Nelson Agholor and something suggests both could be in for a nice end to the regular season.