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Cream puffs devoured, USC eyes bigger prizes

11/2/2014

Not to put a damper on USC’s growing November enthusiasm or anything, but what exactly did that 44-17 bludgeoning of Washington State prove?

The honest answer is not much, other than demonstrating that the Trojans are great at beating up on Pac-12 cream puffs.

Steve Sarkisian’s team now has outscored the two worst teams in the conference by a combined 100-45.

Woo-hoo! Washington State is 1-5 and Colorado is 0-6 in Pac-12 games. So running up the score on those two is not exactly cause for a campus victory rally in front of Tommy Trojan or anything.

There is something to be said for not suffering a letdown against this type of inferior competition. UCLA, for example, barely hung on to nip Colorado in overtime, and Oregon actually had to get its flashy uniforms dirty while suffering a couple of nervous moments against the Cougars.

Still, USC would gladly give up a few of those points it piled up against the cream puffs if it could just have the final two minutes back against Utah and Arizona State.

That can’t happen, of course, so the Trojans will have to settle for trying to go 3-0 through the rest of college football’s most interesting month.

Much of their chance to pull it off might rest on the tests that linebacker/safety Su'a Cravens will have on his knee this week. Before he was injured late in the second quarter in foggy Pullman on Saturday, Cravens was the best defensive player on the field.

The guy simply makes plays, whether it’s in the opposing backfield, at the line of scrimmage or in the secondary. He and Hayes Pullard are easily the surest tacklers on the team. Cravens, who started his career as a safety, is the best thing to happen to this hybrid position since Pete Carroll turned Matt Grootegoed into an All American with a similar switch.

With Cravens, the Trojans defense has a decent shot against UCLA and Notre Dame. Without him? Well, let’s just say things would be a lot more dicey.

Offensively, at least, there are indications that Sarkisian’s team might be peaking at the right time.

Is it OK now to officially describe Cody Kessler as the most underrated quarterback in the country? It’s not just that he is piling up the touchdown passes – he had five more in Pullman --- and throwing the deep ball as well as he has all year.

What is most impressive about the gritty junior is his penchant for avoiding turnovers. This kid throws interceptions about as often as Madison Bumgarner gives up runs. He treats the football as if it were some sort of precious gem, and that is a great trait to have in a quarterback at any level.

It helps, of course, to have a No. 1 target like Nelson Agholor. For a couple of years under Lane Kiffin, Agholor seemed to be almost criminally underused. Even with the brilliant Marqise Lee around, Agholor deserved to have more balls thrown his way, especially when he was always single-covered while defenses concentrated on Lee.

No such problems this year. Agholor has been Kessler’s go-to guy from Day 1, and the gifted junior from Tampa, Florida, enjoyed a breakout game in Pullman, sprinting in and out of the fog to catch eight passes for 220 yards and returning a punt 65 yards for the game’s first touchdown.

Agholor and Arizona State’s Jaelen Strong are clearly the two best receivers in the Pac-12.

Throw in Javorius Allen, who had another 100 yard-plus rushing day, and JuJu Smith, who caught three more touchdown passes, and you have as balanced an offensive group as any since the Carroll glory days.

Now all the Trojans have to do is take all that talent and show that they can beat some good teams.

Cal, the next opponent on Nov. 13, is definitely on a higher level than Colorado or Washington State, but, at 3-4 in the conference and 5-4 overall, it can hardly be described as elite. The new pass-crazy Bears can be dangerous, but USC should be able to handle them at home.

After that, it’s back-to-back nationally-rated challenges. UCLA at the Rose Bowl and Notre Dame at home.

For the Trojans, the rest of November might be better described as the end of the cream puff line.