Trojans showing signs of life

PULLMAN, Wash. -- It started early in training camp and just kept circulating like a morsel of celebrity gossip that gradually morphs into urban legend.

Everyone kept saying how good this USC defense was. Anchored by a big, athletic front seven, they said, it had a chance to be much more than good. If everything broke well, they said, it could be a force of nature that swallows opposing offenses like a storm.

Then, something happened. It played.

That night at Aloha Stadium became a worst-nightmare scenario, the USC defense's faults springing to the front against Hawaii's run-and-shoot offense. Its youth showed up in blown assignments and missed tackles. Its over-aggressiveness showed up in needless penalties, including four off-sides calls. Its lack of conditioning showed up late, as an endless succession of pass rushes used up all the oxygen in the players' lungs.

The Trojans learned something valuable about themselves late that night while most of the nation slept.

"We weren't as good, obviously, as we thought we were," defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron said.

Now, four weeks later, the Trojans are hoping that a forgettable start -- in which the defense gave up ghastly numbers -- 588 total yards, 459 passing yards and 31 first downs -- was the alarm bell for the 2010 season, not the death knell for this team's goal of going undefeated.

The first thing that happened afterward was Orgeron's raging postgame tirade, the first time he had torn into this group, he said. It may not be the last. It's one of the things Orgeron is known for, after all. When you have the voice of a drill sergeant, you use it. Here's how he put it: "I saw some guys on that field who were not playing like Trojans."

"You come into camp, you have success and you start feeling good about yourself, then all of a sudden the live bullets come and you're not doing as good," said the raspy-voiced Louisiana native. "We had high expectations and got leveled a little bit. Now, we're coming back."

In a way, it was a performance that might have given USC the cover to sneak up on the rest of this conference. Already, the defense's softness has been cited as a reason this team could run into trouble after it finishes the tomato-can part of its schedule with Saturday's game at Washington State.

Bloated by the Hawaii numbers, the Trojans' stats still aren't good. They rank sixth in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, seventh in total defense and last in passing defense. Many people figure quarterbacks like Washington's Jake Locker and Stanford's Andrew Luck will pick these guys apart.

But the talent that had everyone so excited a month ago hasn't suddenly drained into the turf at Howard Jones Field. It's still a defense stocked with former five-star recruits and future pros. Game by game, the coaches have seen improvement. First downs and total net yards have declined in each of the Trojans' three games.

You saw signs against Minnesota that this group could actually be what it thought it was. The Gophers stubbornly refused to abandon their strategy of running into the heart of USC's defense and got nowhere, rushing 37 times for a total of 87 yards.

Say what you will about this schedule, but the evidence suggests a unit that is on the upswing. That confusing night in Hawaii probably had something to do with what we're seeing.

"We came out kind of big-headed, thinking we're one of the best defensive lines in the country," tackle Jurrell Casey said. "It just brought us back to reality that, no matter what your preparation is, you've got to make sure you apply it to your game. We're going to come out every week from now on with a chip on our shoulder knowing we've got to be the best."

At times, USC's defense was a liability last year, so it will take more than four good games to get anybody excited. The low point of the Pete Carroll era -- aside from the Reggie Bush investigation -- was that 55-21 loss to Stanford at the Coliseum. Bringing back Orgeron and importing schematic pioneer Monte Kiffin were moves that looked likely to brake that slide. The players should gradually learn the nuances of Kiffin's defense, which isn't all that different from Carroll's.

And now it has its reminder, thanks to the Hawaii Warriors, that nothing will come easy.

"It was something that needed to happen," safety T.J. McDonald said.

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