The evolution of the Trojans

Remember what the feeling was like around this USC team in late September and early October, when the Trojans lost by 21 points to Arizona State and then followed it up by barely beating lowly Arizona at home?

Suffice to say, it was nothing like the feeling around the same team following Saturday's 50-0 win over UCLA. By season's end, Lane Kiffin and his staff molded USC from a middling Pac-12 squad into a top-10 team in a matter of weeks and, in the process, instilled a ton of hope for the future of the program.

So, what did they do? What changed so drastically?

It starts on defense. The biggest problems USC had in the early part of the season -- against the Arizona schools and against Utah earlier on as well -- all traced back to defense. Even then, Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee were working just fine together. They got better, sure, as part of an expected progression.

The defense went from terrible to quite good, all in about eight weeks. Monte Kiffin's unit gave up 43 points to Arizona State and 0 to UCLA. It gave up 41 to Arizona and, later in the year, a combined 34 to two legitimate teams in Notre Dame and Washington.

Three smaller developments this season helped that process.

USC's defensive line started to produce pressure in the passing game as the year went on, Nick Perry finishing with 9.5 sacks and Wes Horton and Devon Kennard adding six more.

The Trojans also made the right adjustment at middle linebacker when they moved Lamar Dawson into the starting lineup and pushed Chris Galippo to the bench, motivating Galippo to come in as a super-sub of sorts in the final few games and play some of his best football.

And cornerbacks Nickell Robey and Isiah Wiley -- the latter being probably the team's biggest in-season surprise -- evolved into players who could take on receivers one-on-one in a pinch, giving the Trojans so many more options than in the past in trying to defend high-octane offenses.

And that's just on defense. Offensively, USC benefited handsomely from Curtis McNeal finally getting serious chances to carry the ball. He rushed for at least 74 yards in the eight games he got seven carries or more. And McNeal and fellow runner Marc Tyler were arguably USC's best 1-2 punch out of the backfield since Reggie Bush and LenDale White.

John Baxter's special teams unit was a difference-maker throughout the year, but even moreso later when teams realized how likely they were to get their field goals blocked by the Trojans. Game tapes show how many kickers purposely avoided the outstretched arms of Matt Kalil and subsequently missed because of it. When Woods was healthy enough to return kicks, he did so well. When he wasn't, McNeal and Lee handled the duties just fine.

But enough about the unit-by-unit breakdowns. Those matter, but the single biggest reason why USC finished its regular season 10-2 and ranked ninth in the Associated Press poll is this: The players played hard throughout the year, whether because of Lane Kiffin's many motivating techniques or because they did it for themselves.

There were no letdown games, and now USC looks ahead at a 2012 season where it will face an relatively easy schedule and a potential preseason top-10 ranking.

Kiffin has clearly gained the fans' trust -- and his players' trust, too, if that was ever in doubt. Now the question is: Can he complete the evolution from middle-tier Pac-12 team to serious national-championship contender?

It's possible.