BERKELEY, Calif. – Less than a week after 275 pounds of weights landed on his throat – ending his 2009 season, and nearly his life – USC running back Stafon Johnson sent a message from his bed at California Hospital Medical Center.
"layin' here [watching] espn," Johnson tweeted Friday, "and wishing i was on that plane to Berkeley."
Johnson may not have been on the sidelines with his USC teammates, but the seventh-ranked Trojans said they could still feel the injured star's presence during a 30-3 win over Cal at Memorial Stadium. Freshman Matt Barkley passed for 283 yards in the victory, which came just five days after Johnson dropped the bar on his neck while doing bench presses.
Johnson had an emergency tracheotomy and then reconstructive throat surgery Monday and might not be able to speak for up to six weeks.
"It was very emotional for us," receiver Damian Williams said. "His absence brought us closer."
That's what's so remarkable about the seventh-ranked Trojans (4-1). Instead of folding in the face of adversity, they continue flourish.
Few teams in college football have dealt with as much drama as USC.
Shareece Wright, a likely starter at cornerback, was lost before the season because of academic problems. A few weeks later cornerback Brian Baucham injured his left foot and knee in a motorcycle accident.
Defensive back Marshall Jones and defensive linemen Hebron Fangupo suffered season-ending injuries in last week's victory over Washington State, and No. 2 receiver Ronald Johnson hasn't played since breaking his collarbone in a preseason scrimmage.
Somehow, the Trojans keep getting better.
"We're a family, a brotherhood, here at USC," Barkley said. "We spend more time with each other than with anyone else at school, even some of our best friends. We know each other inside out. When one someone goes down, it's hard for all of us.
"We rallied around Stafon tonight. I'm sure he’s happy about how we played."
So, too, was USC coach Pete Carroll, who once again has a squad that appears poised for another Pac-10 title. Oregon will provide a stiff test in Eugene, and Oregon State and Stanford – who have upset the Trojans in recent years – won't be easy to beat, even at home.
Still, both on the field and in the locker room, USC's players had a noticeable aura of confidence Saturday, a swagger about them that suggested they're ready to take things to another level.
"We're not where we want to be yet, but you can see that we're getting there," running back C.J. Cable said. "We're at that point where everyone is starting to feel comfortable with what we're doing. Hopefully we'll peak at just the right time."
In their best game to date, the Trojans completely dominated what was supposed to be a strong Cal team. Even after last week's 42-3 loss at Oregon, the thought was that Jeff Tedford's Golden Bears would bounce back on Homecoming and give USC all it could handle.
Instead the Trojans opened the game by intercepting Cal in the end zone and then driving 80 yards for a touchdown.
Talk about a tone-setter. USC led 17-0 one minute into the second quarter and 23-0 entering the fourth.
Cal, which had surrendered 65 straight points before a fourth-quarter field goal, was never even competitive. A steady stream of fans began leaving the stadium early in the third quarter.
"I don't think any air came out of the balloon [after USC's early interception]," Tedford said. "I don't think the guys quit or gave up. It was never a lack of effort."
No, it was USC's defense, which hardly seems to be missing a step despite losing eight starters – including linebackers Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing and Clay Matthews – from its 2008 squad.
Opponents are averaging just 8.6 points a game against USC, which has yet to allow a passing touchdown. Cal quarterback Kevin Riley completed just 15 of 40 passes Saturday. Jahvid Best – once considered a Heisman candidate – only rushed for 47 yards.
"We've known from the beginning that, regardless of who left, we were going to play solid defense," linebacker Chris Gallipo said. "The last five games, we've shut people down."
Even more encouraging was the play of Barkley, who hardly appeared to be feeling the effects of the shoulder injury that kept him out of USC's loss at Washington two weeks ago. Just over a month into his college career, Barkley already owns victories in a pair of rough road environments (Cal and Ohio State) and is causing his coach to crow.
"You can talk all you want about him being young," Carroll said, "but he is a real football player. He is playing as good of football as anybody we've ever had, already. I'm just excited that that isn't the question anymore, about us having a young quarterback.
"We can get back to football."
USC has a bye week before taking on Notre Dame in South Bend. After that it's back-to-back games against Oregon State and Oregon. As crisp as the Trojans were Saturday, they know not to get overconfident.
"The Washington game made us realize how fragile we can be," safety Taylor Mays said.
"The first few games were good," he said, "but this is the time when you really start peaking as a football player, when you really start getting into game shape. Now we'll go into this bye week with lots of a momentum after this win. We can't wait to get back onto the field."
In the meantime, many Trojans exited Memorial Stadium with plans to show up at California Hospital Medical Center on Sunday. The same players who had Johnson's initials and jersey numbers scribbled on their eye black Saturday hoped to surprise their fallen teammate with a visit.
"We haven't planned anything officially yet," Barkley said as he left the locker room, "but I think that'd be really cool."
- Stafon Johnson
- Matt Barkley