Defense flexes its muscles in spring game

It was a very relaxed Saturday at the Coliseum, where the Trojans held their annual spring football game, with more than 10 players sidelined with injuries.

Wrong team · Freshman cornerback Anthony Brown picked off a Matt Barkley pass in the first half. It was the first of two picks for Barkley, who completed just 48 percent of his passes. - Tim Tran | Daily Trojan

Without enough players to field two full teams, the scrimmage was held as a battle between the offense and defense. Scoring for the offense was traditional, while the defense was awarded three points for a stop, five for a turnover and seven for a touchdown.

The crowd of 16,850 was treated to a show of defensive domination, which has been the storyline all spring.

Four touchdowns and a field goal were no match for nine stops and three turnovers, and the defense, as a result, cruised to a 42-29 win.

But the biggest newsmakers of the day might have been those who weren’t playing, most notably sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods, who injured his ankle playing a game of pickup basketball Friday.

“We now have a no basketball policy the day before the spring game,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin. “But it’s not serious. He warmed up but couldn’t go. And maybe it’s a good thing that it happened really. Because a guy like that, you’d hate for him to get hurt today.”

Woods was unquestionably the offense’s best player this spring, eliciting Kiffin’s praise after nearly every practice, and his absence Saturday was apparent.

“Obviously he would have added a lot more yards to the offense today,” said junior quarterback Matt Barkley. “But you gotta deal with what you have and that’s what we’ve been doing for the last year.”

Woods’ injury did give others a chance to shine, however. Freshman tight end Xavier Grimble had eight catches for 73 yards, and sophomore wide receiver Markeith Ambles had six catches for 76 yards. Sophomore wideout De’Von Flournoy had five catches for 62 yards, and junior wideout Robbie Boyer, Barkley’s cousin, finished with six grabs for 51 yards. Barkley himself finished with the game’s lone receiving touchdown, hauling in a halfback pass from sophomore Dillon Baxter on the game’s final play.

“We practiced that zero,” Barkley said. “We hadn’t gone over that at all. In the huddle Kiff just said, ‘let’s do this.’”

Barkley arguably had more success as a receiver than he did at quarterback. The junior completed just 22 of his 42 passing attempts for 212 yards, and was intercepted twice. Alternating with freshman quarterbacks Jesse Scroggins, Max Wittek and Cody Kessler, Barkley only played every three or four series.

“Obviously a game situation is a lot different where you can get a consistent rhythm,” Barkley said. “You’re trying to put a drive together. So within a drive, that’s where you’re looking for the rhythm. But we’re just trying to get guys reps at this point.”

The defense, however, seemed to be in a rhythm. Freshman cornerback Anthony Brown picked off Scroggins in the endzone, and Barkley was intercepted by junior cornerback Brian Baucham and junior linebacker Dallas Kelley.

Junior defensive end Nick Perry had a pair of sacks, as did senior end Zack Kusnir. Junior safety Jawanza Starling led the team with nine tackles, including a chase-down of Dillon Baxter that prevented a would-be touchdown.

Tackling was the squad’s Achilles heel last year, but appears to be improved this spring.

“Tackling, is a lot of it is heart,” McDonald said. “But you also gotta feel the angles when you’re playing and the speed of the game. We practiced a lot more tackling than we did last spring and it’s paying off for us.”

Beyond tackling, the defense appears dramatically improved from last year to the coaches, despite missing a pair of linemen and all three starting linebackers.

“I think they’re better,” Kiffin said. “[But] I don’t know how good a look we’re really giving them on offense to really challenge them. Hopefully we can give them a better look in the fall.”

Both sides of the ball are looking forward to the fall and the returns of, among others: senior linebackers Shane Horton and Chris Galippo, junior linebacker Devon Kennard, senior defensive tackles Christian Tupou and Armond Armstead, and senior running back Marc Tyler, each of whom missed all or most of the spring.

The injury bug continued to bite Saturday, although none looked serious. Senior wideout Brandon Carswell left with concussion-like symptoms, reshman tailback D.J. Morgan went out with an ankle injury and senior tight end Rhett Ellison didn’t return after being laid out from behind by Starling in the day’s biggest hit. Kiffin said none were serious, however.