Lane Kiffin has said it many times this offseason.
In 2010, the Trojans allowed their opponents to creep back into games. The end result was an 8-5 record that the Trojans head coach believed could have been 9-4, 10-3 or even 11-2.
This season, on two separate occasions, against Minnesota and Utah, USC could have lost in the fourth quarter. They could be 0-2 right now.
In week one, the Golden Gophers crept back into the game after the Trojans put up a sloppy second half, including a poor snap that led to a fumble which set Minnesota up nicely for a score.
Then on Saturday, the Utes hung on after the Trojans committed a number of penalties and coughed up the ball three times.
And yet, USC is undefeated right now. While they may not be ranked and while they haven’t been dominant wins like USC fans grew spoiled over in the Pete Carroll era, this team has not yet lost. A ‘W’ is a ‘W.’
A crucial interception and blocked kick kept USC in both games, sure. But it was more than Torin Harris and Matt Kalil doing their jobs well.
The mentality behind those plays illustrates a positive: a togetherness like USC has never known under Lane Kiffin. Last season this team played fragmented, selfish ball at times. Not surprisingly, more Trojans were taken in the NFL draft than any other college, but with little motivation to win each ensuing game, as Ronald Johnson stated so many months later. Despite Matt Barkley being the glue last season to hold all his oh-so-talented pieces together, there was little camaraderie and a lot of confusion.
That’s not the case anymore.
“I don’t know how many games, wins it’s going to equate to but this team is very together. It’s interesting to see. [There’s] very few individuals, [it’s] a very team atmosphere and they’re going to be very competitive,” Kiffin said.
The identity of this club has changed. Like a great wine, the longer this team takes to mature the better it becomes. The Trojans needed that transition year, they needed a burst of energy that came in the form of an incredibly talented recruiting class and they needed that 8-5 season to leave them with a sour taste and a hunger for redemption.
“They grew up a little bit today,” USC tight ends coach Justin Mesa said after the Utah game. “We gained strides, we improved a little today.”
Relying on a large amount of freshmen to be playmakers comes with hesitancy, a nervousness that won’t dissipate until more wins are amassed. But, unlike last season, those playmakers didn’t have a transition year. They only know this new coaching staff. They can only imagine the glory of USC’s past as they weren’t members of it.
For starters, the linebacking core of Hayes Pullard, Chris Galippo and Dion Bailey is younger than the Malcolm Smith, Devon Kennard and Michael Morgan of last season but has been equal in production. There were 39 total tackles by USC linebackers in the first two games of 2010; there have been 40 in the two games the Trojans have played.
Second, they have depth at nearly ever conceivable position. Rotating was on Lane Kiffin’s wishlist for Christmas, and he got just that. While he has only played 43 and 47 players in the two games, respectively, he has more options than he did when he first took the position.
Cornerback opposite Nickell Robey could be the playmaker Torin Harris, the feisty Tony Burnett or the aggressive but small Anthony Brown.
At safety, Sammy Knight can recommend playing energetic Demetrius Wright opposite starter T.J. McDonald, ball hawk Drew McAllister or a consistent tackler in Jawanza Starling.
The depth chart could continue for USC’s wide receivers, linebackers, quarterbacks and defensive line. There are plenty of capable players.
Going into the Trojans’ third game of this homestand, can they use the momentum from two close wins and feed off them? Can the coaches figure out which players to rotate to keep others fresh and not lose their rhythm on either side of the ball? And can the players use the togetherness they show in practice and off the field to put USC back in a position of college football control?
Two games has told us a lot. But it hasn’t told us that much.