The USC Trojans take on the Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday, and it is likely that this game will get really ugly, really fast. The Buffs have been the whipping boy of the Pac-12 since their inaugural season in 2011, looking more like an FCS school than a member of an automatic-qualifying contest. Sure, the Buffs had their glory days back in the early 2000s but those are a thing of the past and even then, the Trojans made a point to remind the Buffs who the boss really was. For this Throwback Thursday we travel back to 2002 and revisit a match-up that pitted the No. 17 team in the country against the No. 18 team, a game where one squad made a loud and clear statement about who they were, and that they planned to do this season.
When No. 17 USC and No. 18 Colorado met at Folsom Field ten years ago, it seemed at the outset to be a very good matchup between very two very good squads. USC had started the season strong with a season-opening victory against Auburn two weeks before, and Colorado, a tough 19-14 loss to No. 19 Colorado State and a rebound 34-14 win over San Diego State. This game was supposed to be physical, a struggle to the end between teams sitting next to each other in rankings. When Colorado’s live bison mascot, Ralphie and his crew stormed the field, the Buffs home crowd came alive and the atmosphere was electric.
Two minutes later they were dead silent, shocked, and already down 7-0 to USC.
Trojan QB Carson Palmer took the field and quickly completed five of five passes, ending USC’s very first possession of the game with a 32-yard touchdown to Malaefou Mackenzie on fourth and six. There was still 10 minutes left in the first quarter, and the rout was on.
Later in the quarter, Palmer continued to pass with fluid accuracy, completing four of five more passes and leading USC 80 yards down the field that ended with another Mackenzie score, this time a 14-yard run into the endzone. Running back Justin Vargas got the Trojan ground game rolling on that drive, in what was his first carry of the 2002 season.
USC took a 14-0 lead into the second quarter and for a moment, it seemed like the Buffs would have a chance to get back into it. Freshman safety J.J. Billingsley picked off Palmer and returned it to the Colorado 47 and at the end of the play, USC got flagged for a late hit. The joy lasted shorter than a winter in Antarctica, as the refs also dinged Colorado for a late hit on the previous play, giving the ball back to the Trojans. Three plays later, McCollough broke off his huge run, coming of the left tackle and blowing past Buffs defensive backs Phil Jackson and Donald Strickland to put the Trojans up 20-0.
The Buffs did manage to get on the board in the third quarter, scoring a 42-yard field goal. The Trojan defense smothered them all night, giving up only 61 yards and four first downs.
Let that sink in: in four quarters, the No. 18 team could only muster less than 100 total yards and only four first downs against the No. 17 team. Who saw that one coming?
Carson Palmer and the aerial assault got the game going, but it was the running game that was the star of the show. USC had averaged 87.7 yards on the ground in 2001, and ran for 84 yards against Auburn. But against Colorado, the Trojans exploded for nearly 200-yards rushing of 425 total yards. Running back Sultan McCollough showed what he could do with his incredible speed, further stunning the Buffs with his 62-yard run to the house, and ending his night with 115 yards from 15 carries. This was the 10th time in his carrier that he rushed for 100 yards or more. Mackenzie had 35 yards on 10 carries as well as his two touchdowns, and freshman Herschel Dennis tacked on an average of 6.5 yards from five carries.
To the LATimes after the game, McCollough said, “The offensive line did a great job opening up holes for all of us, I just did my part.”
When McCollough was taking a break from doing his part, Palmer and the passing game did all kinds of work as well. They accounted for USC’s other 200-plus yards of offense and were relentless in their approach. Freshman wide receiver Mike Williams caught a game-high seven passes for 90 yards, junior Keary Colbert and senior Kareem Kelly each grabbed four balls out of the air, and tight end Gregg Guenther added three more. In front of 22 NFL scouts, QB Palmer put on a spectacular show, heaving balls to a variety of targets, and completing 22 of 30 passes for 244 yards, one touchdown, and no interceptions. He had previously had a great game against the Buffs, completing 25 of 30 passes for 275 yards two years prior.
Palmer also lauded his O-line and praised the running game to the Times, saying, “The job our linemen and running backs did opened up the passing game. That balance is hard to beat.”
When the fourth quarter ticked off and just before Colorado could holler mercy, the scoreboard read 40-3 in USC’s favor. The Trojans really showed who they were and what they would go on to be that season, putting on an incredibly impressive display, on the road, against a team that was so closely ranked to them.
This year, USC is likely to rout the Buffs again as they are currently 41-point favorites to win the game. But unlike in 2002, Colorado stands no chance to knock off the Trojans. This is first of four games that ‘SC will play in the Coliseum after playing four of their first six on the road, and trust that Coach Kiffin is looking to use his running game much like Coach Pete Carroll did in 2002, to wear Colorado down and compliment the passing game. USC will use this game to show what it can do when both factions of its offense are fully functional, and it will likely set the tone for how the squad finishes the season.
Count of Coach Kiffin to channel some of that 2002 mojo, to guide the Trojans to a commanding win that will possibly gain SC some brownie points with bowl season waiting just around the corner.