Trojans aim for BCS bowl game

They came, they saw, they looked happy.

They, of course, being the USC Trojan fans who showed up Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to watch a team scrimmage — a team that has been banned from post-season play for two consecutive years as a result of NCAA sanctions. A team that can field no more than 75 scholarship players — as opposed to the maximum 85 enjoyed by most other FBS teams — for the next three years.

But it’s a new dawn, and USC is positioning itself to give the proverbial finger to the NCAA by making a serious campaign for a BCS Championship game berth.

Quarterback Matt Barkley has returned for his senior year and is a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy. The offensive line is basically intact, and the receiver corps is loaded with talent, including 2011 standouts Marqise Lee and Robert Woods. The defense looks particularly scary — the secondary and linebacker units are deep, fast and nasty.

All this good news on a Saturday afternoon couldn’t possibly be dampened, could it?

Consider this: The Trojans played a no-tackle spring game due to injuries and depth at certain positions. "No-tackle practices" ought to conjure up nightmares for Trojan fans, specifically from the year 2010, Lane Kiffin’s first year as the head coach.

After the NCAA handed down its sanctions, key back-up personnel transferred to other FBS teams without getting penalized the usual one-year sit-out period. The defensive starters played most of the games’ 60 minutes but by the fourth quarter, exhaustion set in. Arm-tackling, fatigue on both sides of the ball, and the NCAA’s heavy hand doomed the season. The Trojans ended up 8-5 with heart-breaking losses to Washington, Stanford and Notre Dame.

Flash forward to Saturday’s spring game and the circumstances were eerily similar. While the game produced no season-ending injuries, receivers Woods (ankle) and George Farmer (hamstring) have been limited in action all spring. The Trojans are also extremely thin at running back. In an attempt to add more depth to Tailback U, Tre Madden was moved from linebacker to tailback, and it looked like a brilliant move, but Madden recently tore a knee ligament and it was back to square one. Javorious "Buck" Allen runs with a slashing-style that also looks very promising, but he’s working on getting his hamstring healthy.

I asked Kiffin if USC could be running no-tackle practices in the fall if these scenarios were still playing out in mid-August.

"Yeah, I think so," he said firmly, without reservation. "We’ll do some tackling drills but if it’s leaning toward that, it’s [only] one or two scrimmages."


"We’ve never had something happen like what has happened this off-season to us in the fall," he said, with what appeared to be some worry albeit no panic in his voice.

Limiting contact is somewhat precautionary, but if things don’t improve by August, Kiffin wants to protect his players.

"We’re making sure of keeping our guys healthy," he added.

Still, while the players don’t want to see any more injuries, they felt disappointment when they were informed of the no-tackle policy for the spring game.

"The whole team wanted to [tackle]," center Khaled Holmes laughed. "It’s not just the defense. Hey, we like that stuff too. When you take that out of the game, it really changes [everything]."

"I was a little disappointed," freshman linebacker Scott Starr admitted. "On a scale of one to 10, it was a 10, but we don’t want to hurt our guys so it’s all good in the end."

While the Trojan fans’ enthusiasm might have been somewhat tempered at the game, there was still some tackling on every play. On one particular play, Lee was tackled out of bounds and that drew some heated reactions from the coaches. It’s difficult to rein in a nasty defense and a prolific offense, but they’ve finally got something to shoot for in December. Or beyond.

The Rose Bowl game would be nice, and if you ask any Trojan, he’ll be politically correct and offer that up as his — and the team’s — goal. But deep down inside, after being banned from bowl play and watching their BCS Championship trophy hauled out of Heritage Hall, you know they want more.

There’s a chip on their shoulders. There’s some payback coming to a few teams. There’s another Pac-12 team looking to take out the SEC champ (or, as we’ve seen, the second-place SEC team). But first, they have to get healthy. Stay healthy.

And that might mean some fall practices without tackling.

Trojan fans just better hope it’s not déjà-vu.