The traffic on the way to the Coliseum, the humming of USC fans on the outskirts of the stadium and the noise from the crowd were oddly familiar.
After fans chanted “We Want Spencer,” in the first quarter, redshirt junior inside linebacker Spencer Gilbert proceeded to intercept the ball on the next possession, sending the crowd in a frenzy.
In many ways, it was finally like things were returning to normal at the Coliseum
It was USC’s annual Spring Showcase, but the energy and the feel of having fans, approximately 5,000, in the stands for the first time since November 2019 was evident. And, most importantly, it marked a new season of USC football with renewed expectations and pressure to live up to them.
Both sidelines were bouncy and exuberant to be back on the field with Team Cardinal securing a 27-7 victory over Team Gold Saturday.
“What a wonderful day to be in the Coliseum. A Southern California weather day, beautiful day and to have a lot of kids have the opportunity to play in front of their families and some fans and it was just an enjoyable day all the way around,” head coach Clay Helton said in a virtual press conference Saturday. “Good for our football team to kind of see — after eight practices, this being our ninth — just kind of see where we’re at.”
The teams played four 12-minute quarters with no fair catches on punts or kickoffs and no 15-minute half time break. It resulted in fast paced action with both sides of the ball showcasing their talent.
The game started much like how the upcoming season might — with a pass from junior quarterback Kedon Slovis to junior wide receiver Drake London for a first down catch.
The on-field chemistry between Slovis and London was the story of the game for the Team Gold offense and evident whenever they were on the field together.
London had seven total catches for 139 yards, including a huge 45-yard catch from Slovis in the third quarter that led to a touchdown run from senior running back Vavae Malepeai. Slovis finished with 128 yards passing on 12 attempts.
The defenses on both teams only allowed 20 combined points in the first half, highlighting a group that has the potential to be one of the best in the Pac-12. They also forced five turnovers overall, including a fumble and four interceptions.
Helton had high praise for all positions on defense, including the linebackers, who he mentioned looked the best during the game. The corners also played “lights out,” according to Helton.
“I really liked the development today … I like where we are really, a lot. I was a little bit worried [about our secondary] coming into camp, it may end up being one of the strengths of our team by the end of it,” he said.
For Team Gold, junior defensive end Drake Jackson was a menace. On the final possession of the first half for team Cardinal, Jackson proceeded to bat a Slovis pass down and then steamrolled over an offensive lineman for a sack.
The defensive line, in particular, seems to be poised to wreak havoc on opposing teams during the season. It created issues for the offensive line, which was inconsistent throughout the game.
“Over [an] entire camp I have been pleased with the offensive line … You get in some live game experience and you probably have some mistakes and some things you’re going to correct,” Helton said. “But there also was some positive aspects of it. I thought they allowed the runners to do some nice things today.”
The offensive line’s pass blocking contributed to a 48-yard reception from Texas transfer senior Keaontay Ingram. He galloped down the field juking past defenders and showcasing what he can bring to the Trojan backfield.
His big gain led to the Gold’s only touchdown of the game — a touchdown reception from redshirt senior quarterback Mo Hasan to redshirt sophomore wide receiver Bru McCoy.
Outside of Ingram, returning redshirt senior running backs Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai ran the ball well and for two touchdowns combined. Even walk-on redshirt freshman Matt Columbo had a 24-yard run that led to a touchdown reception by freshman wide receiver Michael Jackson III to close the game.
All four backs combined for 150 total rushing yards.
“I really liked what Keaontay Ingram and Brandon Campbell showed, not only today but all the way through camp and [I’m] really excited about their future here,” Helton said. “And then you saw just the experience of Vavae [Malepeai] and Stephen Carr and what they bring to the table … Man are we in a great situation, right there, right now with these kids.”
USC will continue their offseason with spring practices and kick-off the 2021 season against San Jose State Sept. 4.