LOS ANGELES -- It’s amazing how little we’ve learned about this USC football team through the first three games.
Matt Barkley and Robert Woods are good. The early-season schedule, not so much.
This coaching staff and USC’s collective fandom sit and hope this team grows into a personality. It has an offensive identity -- those two guys. “Barkley to Woods” figures to be the phrase of 2011, maybe the only memorable connection when it’s all said and done.
But there is another group on this team that has the potential to take over games, to help carry this team back from the morass of mediocrity to a potentially dominant position in college football again. Thus far, we’ve only seen glimpses and furtive glances.
Some of the most talented guys on this roster teased us again in Saturday’s close-but-not-quite-dominant 38-17 win over Syracuse. The USC defensive line isn’t what it should be yet, but it’s getting close. It has seven days before it absolutely has to arrive or this season might unravel slowly, the way it did a year ago.
“I’m waiting to see it. I really am,” said defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron. “It hasn’t happened yet. We’ve shown spurts, but obviously we’ve got a lot of ball left to play.”
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib is an efficient guy and he was beginning to get comfortable Saturday, far more at-home than a quarterback from a rebuilding program ever should look playing in the Coliseum -- a place that once had the power to unnerve. Nassib was so rattled, he completed all 11 of his passes in the first quarter.
By the third, it looked as if he and his Orange teammates were actually starting to believe they could do what five of the previous 12 USC opponents had done here: win.
Then things started to cave in.
Syracuse had gotten to within 24-10 and Nassib hit Nick Provo on a 33-yard strike to push the ball all the way to USC’s 37-yard line. USC needed somebody to do something big, somebody to knock Nassib out of his rhythm and get the message through that this program may be down, but it still can land a punch.
Nassib dropped back on third-and-eight and was enveloped in the collective embrace of Nick Perry, Shane Horton and DaJohn Harris, the gang-sack ending a drive that had started with so much promise. Syracuse was backed up on its next drive and Wes Horton hit Nassib this time, dropping him at the Syracuse 10. The Trojans had only three sacks, but two of them were at that pivotal juncture in the third quarter.
“We just kept coming,” Harris said.
Teams have tended to avoid these guys. The USC defense is seeing a lot of quick drops and play-action plays, opponents hoping to offset the Trojans’ big athletes by putting the heat on the secondary. But they should have opportunities in the upcoming week. The Trojans figure to get their toughest test yet at Arizona State, where Brock Osweiler has thrown for an average of 290 yards per game. But he’s also 6 feet 8, 240 pounds and will take his time in the pocket looking for deep hits in Dennis Erickson’s offense.
Now, would be as good a time as any for the USC defensive front to prove it’s as good as the recruiting services claimed. Perry might be the most impressive athlete on USC’s team, Devon Kennard was a highly decorated recruit who has bounced between linebacker and defensive end and has yet to leave a permanent mark. Harris is turning into a force on the interior. Christian Tupou is the most experienced player in the group.
“Every game, we’re going to come out here and be dominant out here,” Perry said. “That’s going to be key in some of these big games.”
Orgeron keeps waiting. He challenges these guys during position group meetings. But being a defensive end is kind of like being a closer in baseball. People don’t want to hear about the details. You either got the save or you didn’t. You either got the sack or you didn’t.
“His big emphasis is, we’ve got all the talent in the world in the D-line room, but we’ve got to show it on Saturdays,” Kennard said. “The hype doesn’t matter, what we could be or what we can be. We’ve got to put it on film.”