LOS ANGELES >> Nothing illustrates just how far the USC football program has come in the past three years than the reaction of coaches and players after Saturday’s season opener.
No. 1 USC had just thumped Hawaii, 49-10, in front of an announced crowd of 93,607 at the Coliseum. Matt Barkley passed for 372 yards and four touchdowns for the Trojans, who were favored by 42 points. Marqise Lee had 197 receiving yards and a 100-yard kickoff return. And yet . the Trojans were far from satisfied.
Receiver Robert Woods gave the offense a grade of C-plus or B-minus. Coach Lane Kiffin said “somewhere in the C range.” This USC team has set high standards for itself, and its weekly ambition is to meet them.
“It’s the mindset of trying to get better,” Lee said.
Kiffin said late last season that Lee had the potential to be the greatest receiver in USC history. He certainly appeared to live up to Kiffin’s praise, starting with the first play from scrimmage, when he took a 9-yard pass from Barkley and turned it into a 75-yard touchdown. In his past three games, Lee has 31 receptions for 608 yards and four touchdowns.
But in keeping with the theme, Lee said his two dropped passes Saturday would stick with him more than his two sensational touchdowns. Said Kiffin: “Obviously he made some spectacular plays. But as he knows, our expectations are higher than how he played today.”
Barkley, considered the Heisman Trophy front-runner entering the season, said the offense’s performance felt “bittersweet.” USC had two three-and-out possessions in the first half, and new tailback Silas Redd lost a fumble.
“I felt like we left a lot of points on the table,” Barkley said. “I feel like we could have scored at least 100 points in the first half.”
The vibe was not the same on the other side of the ball.
Aside from the opening drive of the second half, USC’s defense smothered Hawaii’s Norm Chow-directed offense. The Trojans had four takeaways, almost a quarter of their season total in 2011, and sacked quarterback Sean Schroeder (Dana Hills High) five times.
“We played spectacular ball out there,” said Hayes Pullard, who started at middle linebacker in place of the injured Lamar Dawson. “We just played like we’ve been together forever.”
That’s true for most of the back seven, but it was hardly the case for the defensive line. It only looked that way.
With senior end Wes Horton out, USC started an entirely new front four. Most of the backups who rotated into the game were new as well. Yet they consistently harassed Schroeder and helped limit the Warriors to 56 net rushing yards.
“It was good to get out there and play and show the D-line won’t be a problem this year,” redshirt freshman defensive tackle Antwaun Woods said. “I feel like we responded to adversity. Everybody kept (viewing) the D-line as a question mark.”
The rebuilt defensive line was considered the biggest potential weakness for a team with national-championship aspirations. Position coach Ed Orgeron liked what he saw, but he also knows there’s work to be done.
“We’ve got to watch the film and see how we can get better,” Orgeron said. “We’re going to be tested down the road.”
The other offseason emphasis for the defense was to create more turnovers after producing only 17 last season. It didn’t take long for that to happen. Two plays after Redd’s first-quarter fumble, cornerback Nickell Robey tipped a pass to Pullard, who returned the interception 27 yards for a touchdown to put USC up, 20-0.
“Everybody was just in the right spot at the right time,” Pullard said of the interception. Everybody, that is, except Pullard, who was supposed to blitz on the play.
Pullard’s only other miscue came five plays later, when he celebrated a tackle by making a throat-slashing gesture. Pullard received a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
“I take full responsibility for what I did,” Pullard said. “It will not happen again.”
It isn’t uncommon for players’ emotions to run high in a home opener, especially when expectations are so grand. Barkley barked at Lee after a miscommunication in the third quarter.
“You expect perfection,” Barkley said. “It’s nothing personal.”
USC’s next opportunity to perfect its craft comes next Saturday against Syracuse in East Rutherford, N.J.