Saturday marked the return of some familiar sights, sounds and the unmistakable scent of bacon-wrapped hot dogs to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as the USC football team took the field for its spring exhibition game.
The game was played between the offense and defense, with traditional scoring for the cardinal-clad offensive team and special scoring in place for the white-wearing defense, in which the defense tallied three points for stops, five points for turnovers and seven points for defensive touchdowns. Despite getting dominated at the line of scrimmage and recording a dismal -36 rushing yards, the offense pulled out the victory, 42-36, thanks to a lethal aerial attack.
In addition to changes in scoring, another change in the game came from the virtual absence of tackling — a precautionary measure for a team that has lost 20 players, 16 of whom are on scholarship, to injuries this spring. Despite the alarming number of absences, USC head coach Lane Kiffin was confident about his team’s near-full recovery come fall.
“Even though there’s 20 injuries, there’s really only one, hopefully, that will affect next fall … which is [junior wide receiver] George [Farmer], so all these guys should be back,” Kiffin said.
With Farmer out for the entire 2013-14 season with a torn ACL and MCL, there were questions surrounding the No. 3 wide receiver spot — a question which was soundly answered on the field Saturday by sophomore wideout Victor Blackwell, whose athleticism and reliable hands netted him 155 yards on seven receptions and one touchdown.
Blackwell’s fellow wide receivers junior Marqise Lee and sophomore Nelson Agholor, the presumptive No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, got off to a hot start early, slicing the depleted defensive back corps to ribbons and getting open at various spots on the field at will throughout the first quarter. Lee showed no signs of rust coming off his Biletnikoff Award-winning 2012 campaign, netting 148 yards on eight receptions and three touchdowns.
When asked about his goals for this coming season, Lee said he wanted to go the whole year without dropping a ball.
“For me, it’s possible. That is one of my goals,” Lee said.
Lee demonstrated exactly how he would go about accomplishing that goal on a connection with sophomore quarterback Max Wittek. Running a streak up the right sideline, Lee was blanketed by two defensive backs while being ushered out of bounds as he approached the endzone. Wittek slightly overthrew Lee and the spiraling ball started to err outside the sideline when Lee leapt, contorted his body into position and snatched it from dropping out of bounds before landing with both feet in the endzone for a 30-yard touchdown. Lee’s breathtaking display of athleticism drew audible gasps from the crowd of more than 15,000.
Though Lee’s abilities were never called into question Saturday, the starting quarterback question became only murkier with the exemplary performance of sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler. Kessler started strong, with his first throw of 2013 landing in the hands of a wide-open Lee over the middle for a 70-yard touchdown. Kessler finished 15 for 22 for 242 yards and three touchdowns, but not without his share of miscues, including being sacked four times and telegraphing his throws for batted balls on a couple occasions.
Incumbent starter Wittek threw for 145 yards on 12 for 17 passing for two touchdowns and two interceptions. Despite the interceptions (one of which came on a tipped ball), Wittek looked nimble and polished, exercising great awareness while deftly evading defenders by stepping up into the pocket to buy extra time.
Wittek further impressed in situational play by spearheading a drive to end the first half in a modified two-minute drill. Wittek looked to his flats for short completions and managed the game clock like a veteran, punctuating the 51-yard drive with a 25-yard touchdown pass to Blackwell with 18 seconds left in the half. The statistics didn’t deter Wittek’s self-evaluation. When asked if he felt if he had done enough to be named the starter, Wittek answered confidently.
“Yeah, I think I played well, I think I put a good resume on film,” Wittek said. “I look forward to seeing what happens.”
Like his peers, freshman quarterback Max Browne found his rhythm early, connecting with Agholor for a 44-yard touchdown on a play-action post. Later in the game, however, Browne fell victim to five sacks and an interception.
“Towards the end [I] probably took too many sacks; that’ll come with time as I get used to protections and the check downs, but I felt like it was a solid job,” Browne said.
Of the three quarterbacks, Browne has made the most progress. The freshman started spring practice by skipping through progressions and looking overwhelmed by the speed of the game and ended spring Saturday looking to make plays.
“[I’m] definitely glad I got these extra 15 practices in,” Browne said. “From day one to day fifteen, I’ve learned a lot. I’m a lot more comfortable both in the huddle with the offense, with the guys. It’s been a big improvement for me.”
Regardless of how the quarterback battle pans out, this spring has been one of great progress for all three Trojan signal callers. Perhaps Kiffin summarized his quarterback quandary best.
“There’s a lot of people around the country [who] are trying to find one really good quarterback,” Kiffin said. “I think we have three.”