USC Trojans try to stay grounded

MINNEAPOLIS -- USC has a little problem heading into Game 3 at Minnesota Saturday. It might become a big problem, one that could turn into a sinkhole, pulling everything they've worked for into the muck.

The defense is thin -- not fashionably thin, but scary thin.

The Trojans coaches have so little faith in their defensive backups that they have barely substituted through two games, turning the fourth quarter into into a Himalayan trek, without oxygen, for some of the hard-worked players. Linebacker Devon Kennard participated in 76 plays last week.

The effects were most obvious at Hawaii, as the Trojans defense barely offered resistance in the final, wild minutes. They were there late against Virginia, too. The Cavaliers -- stymied for about 55 minutes -- marched resolutely down the field for a last-ditch touchdown, putting them an on-side kick away from terrifying more than 80,000 fans at the Coliseum.

"We have been very fatigued in the fourth quarter in both games, because we hardly play any players," coach Lane Kiffin said.

If this USC season is to be redeemed -- and remember, the goal of the team is to go 13-0 and spoil the BCS party -- the coaches have to find a way to get their defensive players rest without risking collapse. They already have the solution, they just don't know if it's going to work.

One of the top imperatives of this season is to establish a power-running game, one that can grind the clock as it grinds the grass up by its roots. This offense has the potential -- the line and backfield are stocked with five-star recruits -- but execution is another matter.

If things go as planned this season, make no mistake: The Trojans will have built their identity around running the football, just as they did in the golden days of the program. So far, things haven't gone to plan.

"That's not what we are right now," Kiffin said. "I'd like it to be, but I think your identity is what the facts are, and the facts are what you've done lately. We're not very good right now."

The gap between potential and performance is a wide one for USC's offensive line. That isn't entirely surprising since these guys just completed their first consecutive weeks of practice together. Injuries to guards Khaled Holmes and Butch Lewis disrupted the group's timing throughout fall camp. Other than tackle Tyron Smith, none of the current starters was a full-time starter last season.

The inexperience has shown. When Virginia surprised the Trojans by bringing the safeties up to the line of scrimmage last Saturday and loading the box, it led to chaos for most of the first half. USC struggled to pick up defenders and ball carriers were finding the running lanes closed.

"They showed a little different defense and we kind of over-panicked to it," tailback Marc Tyler said.

Offensive line coach James Cregg said he "got into" his guys on the bench after he noticed several of them appearing overcome by the atmosphere at the Coliseum. Eventually, the line made some adjustments and pried open holes. Cregg thinks his group has the potential to run-block well in the coming weeks. Saturday's game would be a good time to start, since Minnesota's offense has proven efficient in its first two games while its defense has been porous.

"We'd certainly like to run the ball better. That's who we are," Cregg said. "We are going to run the football and do a lot of movement off of that."

It's not as if the linemen don't have promise. Four of the five were Parade All-Americans in high school. The one who wasn't, Holmes, made the ESPN 150 list of brightest high-school stars. Now, it's all about blending their individual talents into a cohesive, functioning unit. That and play-making running backs are the keys to running the ball.

"We're young, but the thing is these guys are really smart," O'Dowd said. "It's good having confidence in everyone in the line. That's what you have to have for that camaraderie and flow of the offense. When you have trust in all five, you can do anything."

USC's approach to the running game since Pete Carroll arrived has always been to mix in lightning with thunder, and Kiffin believes in it, too. Tyler, a 5-foot-11, 218-pound redshirt junior, has emerged as the No. 1 power back while Dillon Baxter's career as the spark has just begun. Baxter got just 11 touches against Virginia, but he said Kiffin promised him a more prominent role against Minnesota. He and Tyler both have big-play potential, but Baxter has the speed and elusiveness to turn broken plays into long touchdowns.

Baxter's main task last Saturday was to avoid fumbling. Check. Step two in earning the coaches' trust is to produce. He isn't shy about his abilities. After the Virginia game, he told ESPNLosAngeles.com blogger Pedro Moura he's "got a little something" for Minnesota's linebackers.

"Hopefully, I can make some plays," Baxter said.

There are 11 guys on USC's defense pulling for him.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.