USC secondary shines in spring game

Ahh, spring games. Or maybe they should be called spin games? If the team plays poorly, it’s just a scrimmage. If the team looks like a champion, it’s time to make travel plans for New Orleans in the second week of 2012 (Hint: Next available BCS title game for Trojans). Spin, spin, spin.

USC isn’t eligible for postseason play this season — unless the NCAA reduces the current sanctions — but fans still showed up because hey, the Lakers are in New Orleans, the Dodgers are in Chicago and the Kings and Ducks are on the road, too. They also wanted to witness the state of the Kiffin Era in Year Two.

What 16,850 fans expected were improvements after last year’s second-half-of-the-season meltdown. And there were some, most notably on the defense.

"I thought the storyline of the day . . . would be the play of the first-team defense — especially early on before we took some guys out," head coach Lane Kiffin said. "The two defensive ends played extremely well today."

Kiffin also observed that the Trojan linebackers had made the biggest improvement since all three projected starters for the fall weren’t even playing in the game.

Perhaps the most obvious improvement — the one that was so glaring last year — was in the secondary. Kiffin mentioned T.J. McDonald and Nickell Robey as the two defensive backs that impressed him.

Last year the Trojans’ pass defense gave up an average of 259.5 yards per game, partly because of inexperienced defensive backs getting caught out of position frequently. The difference this year, according to safety T.J. McDonald, was the unit’s confidence. "We know the speed of the game, we know what angles we have to take to cut guys off and be able to tackle," McDonald said.

"We’ve been practicing that all spring and we did a lot more tackling than we did last spring and I think it’s paying off for us."

On the offensive side, it was a little bit of a mixed bag. Quarterback Matt Barkley had a decent day, completing 22 of 42 passes for 212 yards, but Kiffin said it was hard to evaluate him since there were "so many [receivers] that really, have never played before."

The running backs were very productive, especially Curtis McNeal, who seems to have more focus right now. "I have to step my game up pretty much in the classroom," McNeal admitted. "I’m on academic probation, I just have to get a 2.3 (GPA) and I’m off academic probation."

The offensive line is the unit that needs the most improvement, according to Kiffin. "We basically played with one player that’s played college football, [or] significant snaps for college football, so we have a lot of work to do there."

Despite several dropped passes and a kicking game that is still very green (frosh Andre Heidari scored the lone field goal), the game ended on a high note. The last play of the 121-play scrimmage was a 3-yard halfback toss from Dillon Baxter to Matt Barkley for a touchdown that got the fans jumping up and down. According to Barkley, they had never practiced that play and Kiffin had decided to call it after he saw man coverage.

Final score, 42-29, Defense

Spring game stat leaders:

  • Rushing: Curtis McNeal — 13 carries, 107 yards, 2 TD

  • Passing: Matt Barkley — 22-of-42, 212 yards, 2 INT

  • Receiving: Xavier Grimble — 8 catches, 73 yards

  • Tackles: Jawanza Starling — 9

  • Sacks: Nick Perry — 2

  • Significant injuries: Tight end Rhett Ellison hurt his back, but X-rays were negative, according to Kiffin.