First game couldn’t arrive sooner for USC

It’s here.

It’s been eight months since USC last played a football game — 241 days, to be exact.

It’s actually been about 10 months since USC played a game that was enjoyable to watch, but I digress.

The wait is over. This is a team, a fan base and a program all too eager for a fresh start.

The bitter disappointment of last season can be washed out. We can stop, at least for a few hours, with the incessant speculation about quarterbacks. Tonight at 8 p.m., we can watch football. And man, that’s a beautiful thing.

Over the week of practice leading up to tonight’s game, I asked several players what, if anything, sets the first game apart from all the others. Their answer, almost collectively, was as simple as it is obvious. But it is also undeniably true.

What makes the first game so special? “Because it’s the first game.”

There really isn’t any better way to say it. Junior wide receiver Marqise Lee said it four times in his answer, like Allen Iverson talking about practice.

“I mean, it’s the first game,” Lee said emphatically. “That’s it. It’s the first game. It’s the first chance to go out there and do what you’re supposed to do. It’s the first game. I mean, it’s the first game!”

Well said, Marqise, well said. After the utter collapse of last season — you know, the 1-5 record in the last six games, the rampant rumors of team dissent, the seemingly total lack of leadership, the very thought of the Sun Bowl — it’s about time for something new.

“Man, it’s been a long time,” Lee said on Saturday. “I’ve been ready since the end of the bowl game. I’m ready just like everyone else. We’ve been ready. First game on Thursday. It’s on.”

For seniors, such as defensive lineman Devon Kennard, it’s the last first game they will ever play. Kennard missed all of 2012 with a torn pectoral muscle, so one can only imagine how ready he is to take the field tonight.

“I’ve been through a lot,” said Kennard, who also tore his ACL as a senior in high school. “I don’t take it for granted now, being able to be out here and being able to play with my teammates.”

And what did Kennard say about the distinctiveness of the opener? You guessed it.

“It’s the first game,” said the newly-named team captain. “You can’t duplicate that. It’s the first game of the season. And it’s my senior season, so this is gonna be a special game for me because it’s the first of the last. So I’m looking forward to that.”

We all are: coaches, players, fans, students, media. Football is ingrained in the fabric of this school in a way that isn’t really seen outside of the South.

Entire social calendars revolve around the football schedule. Going to Stanford or Cal for the Weekender up north is seemingly as commonplace as going to class — which is to say that plenty of people don’t go, but plenty others do. The thought of students actually going to any afternoon class on Thursday, October 10, when USC hosts Arizona that night, is completely laughable.

There is something magical about fall Saturdays (or Thursdays, I guess) here. Many students and alumni distinctly remember the first time they woke up on game day as a freshman, looked out their dorm room window and saw McCarthy Quad as they never had before.

Common coach-speak would dictate that every game is the same, and the first game is just as exciting as all the others. But even Lane Kiffin admits that’s not true.

“No matter what you say about trying to treat everything the same, it’s natural that when the game gets closer, and the guys know there’s an opponent coming, they pick it up a little bit,” Kiffin said.

Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, one coach never afraid to speak his mind, elaborated a little further.

“It’s the anticipation [that sets the first game apart], for me,” Orgeron said. “You’ve been working all camp. You’ve been in spring ball, you’ve been in the weight room and now you finally get to play somebody else. I mean, it’s why you play the game.”

You would be hard-pressed to find a member of the football program, athletic department or even the Trojan Family with more “Trojan Spirit” than the man they call Coach O. And perhaps he put it best.

“I love representing the Trojans,” Orgeron said. “Every time we put on the Cardinal and Gold and watch these guys play, it’s special for me.”

I think it’s fair to say that Coach O was speaking for everyone.


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