On Saturday, USC concluded its first spring game under head coach Steve Sarkisian, and the overall results were mixed — the Trojans’ offense was kept out of the end zone all day and had trouble moving the ball, gaining just 257 offensive yards and completing fewer than 50 percent of its passes.
The play calling was conservative, and the overall goal of the day appeared to be less about scoring points and more about generating excitement for the fans and keeping everyone healthy. By those standards, the day was a success.
“I thought our kids played hard,” Sarkisian said. “There were some big passing plays that guys made. Overall the defense played really well, especially in the red zone. The end result is no serious injuries, so all in all we come out of spring just about as healthy as we started.”
Redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler, just days after being officially named the Trojans’ starter, began the game by completing his first two pass attempts and leading the offense down to the 2-yard line. But the defense settled in after that, and Kessler finished the day with five completions on 10 pass attempts for 86 yards.
“We just need to get healthy,” Kessler said. “We moved the ball fine … we had plenty of opportunities, we just didn’t finish in the end zone. Overall, through the spring, our guys did great. We’ve made so many improvements.”
In the first series, the offense had the ball inches away from the goal line on third down and attempted a run play to the left side, but senior linebacker Hayes Pullard anticipated the snap count and seemed to know where the play was going, and made a tackle for a four-yard loss.
“Hayes knew the play,” Kessler said. “He’s a veteran, and you expect that from him. He does that in games, too, when we’re playing other teams, because he’s so smart.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Max Browne and the second team offense struggled just as much as the first team. Both offensive lines struggled to keep the defensive front out of the backfield, with the defense making several tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The offense finished the game with 34 rushing yards on 41 attempts, with a long of just 11 yards.
“You’ve got guys like Antwaun Woods, Leonard [Williams] is coming back and J.R. Tavai,” Browne said. “That’s the best defensive line in this conference, and hopefully in the country. It was definitely challenging.”
Pullard was complimentary of the defensive line, calling it the strength of the defense.
“You have to give it to [the defensive line] all the time,” Pullard said. “We need them to stop the run, and we need them to help in pass defense. Without the front seven, we don’t have anything.”
Though Sarkisian and the rest of the coaching staff did not place a large emphasis on the final score, Sarkisian admitted that his offense needed to improve its execution by the time fall camp begins in August, especially in the red zone.
“We’ll be a great red zone offense,” Sarkisian said. “Historically, we’ve been, and wherever I’ve gone, we’ve been really good in the red zone. This was a bit of a vanilla game plan [today], and we just wanted to let the guys play. We had a couple chances, and we couldn’t convert. It’s good that we played good red zone defense today, I’ll look at it like that.”
Sarkisian caused a minor controversy earlier in the spring when he assigned the No. 55 jersey, worn in the past by legendary USC linebackers such as Willie McGinest, Keith Rivers and Junior Seau, to freshman offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn.
McGinest was on the field for the spring game on Saturday and when asked about the decision to give No. 55 to an offensive lineman, he was honest in saying that he was disappointed with the decision and wanted to have a conversation with Sarkisian about it. After the game, Sarkisian said he intended to change Lobendahn’s jersey number and that the decision to give him No. 55 in the first place was an oversight.
Freshman quarterback Jalen Greene completed four passes on 11 attempts for 61 yards in his first spring game, and showed flashes of promise that encouraged Sarkisian about the speedy youngster’s bright future.
“I thought it was impressive for a kid that should still be in high school to go out and just play ball,” Sarkisian said. “He made some really quality throws, had good command of the offense and pulled the ball down and ran some. For a kid who should be getting ready for senior prom, I thought he showed a really good sense of confidence and threw the ball with conviction. I was very encouraged by him.”
Sarkisian said he expects to have a fully healthy roster by the time the team begins fall camp in early August.
Junior tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick led the Trojans with three catches for 56 yards. With redshirt senior tight end Randall Telfer out with an injury, Cope-Fitzpatrick has taken advantage of the extra practice reps and seems poised for a breakout season. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton said earlier in the spring that tight ends will be featured more in the passing game this season.
Senior kicker Andre Heidari made four of his five field goal attempts. Heidari was 15-for-22 last season, and made the game-winner in USC’s upset win over Stanford.
USC ran 85 total plays during the team portion of the day, and the attendance was 17,500.