USC football’s spring game gives sneak peek into year two of Riley rebuild, shows strides on both sides

The Trojans displayed improvements all around and particularly on defense in the finale of spring practice.

Raleek Brown cuts to avoid two defenders during USC's spring game Saturday afternoon.

The Trojan Marching Band’s cognitively dissonant shouts of “Beat SC” could mean just one thing: a USC football spring game.

Year two of head coach Lincoln Riley’s project informally began as the Trojans trotted out on the field on a sunny SoCal day. Fans watched on as USC looked to prove that last year’s 11-3 record was only the beginning of something bigger.

Offense squared off against defense in a two-half affair, fifteen minutes each. If you know anything about USC football these days, you would expect the offense to prevail.

But things were different Saturday afternoon, as the defense earned enough stops to win the spring game 42-34.

“That was a very fitting end to our spring,” Riley said. “In a lot of ways, that’s what our spring has looked like in terms of competitive, down-to-the-wire [play] … a lot to build on but a lot to be excited about today.”

Most of the attention, as has been the case all spring long, was on the defense. It was USC’s downfall last season, the Achilles heel that hampered an elite offensive unit. The Trojans looked to showcase a lessening dichotomy in results on the two sides of the ball.

For the most part, that’s what they did. Sure, the defense still had its fair share of penalties and moments where tackling looked harder than getting a Coachella ticket. And yes, the first-team defense was matching up against the second and third-string offense. But defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s philosophy of risky defending with a focus on forcing turnovers is still alive and well — and it worked this afternoon, earning four turnovers.

The defensive production is boosted by plenty of transfer implants from around the country, and USC’s front seven already looks leaps and bounds ahead of last year’s group.

“When I’m running around and hitting people, everyone wants to do that,” said senior linebacker Mason Cobb, a transfer from Oklahoma State. “I wouldn’t put a ceiling on these guys.”

The slightly unorthodox scoring format saw the defense begin the game with 24 points, earning three points for turnovers, fourth-down stops and missed field goals — defensive touchdowns and safeties were worth seven points. Offensive scoring was standard, starting with zero points.

To no one’s surprise, the offense wasted no time putting points on the board. The Cardinal jerseys mounted a three-play, 75-yard drive for a touchdown in just 70 seconds. Junior quarterback Caleb Williams found junior receiver Mario Williams, who leaped up to “Moss” a defender for the grab.

Trojan fans only got to see one drive from their Heisman winner Caleb Williams, as Riley rotated his quarterbacks frequently. Freshman Malachi Nelson, redshirt sophomore Miller Moss and junior Jake Jensen each took drives, leading the backup units of the USC offense.

“I don’t know if playing two or three more series is gonna change anything for Caleb,” Riley said. “For a guy like Miller Moss … these [snaps] are invaluable. For a guy like Malachi Nelson or Jake Jensen, this is their first time to really do it. These snaps are way more valuable to those guys than maybe somebody that’s played the amount of ball Caleb has.”

USC’s scorekeepers had themselves a day as well, taking away and adding points to the score at later points in the game. Junior receiver Dorian Singer’s catch in the end zone in the first quarter was initially ruled a touchdown but was reviewed and called an interception a couple of drives later. The defense was awarded three points for the turnover, but the offense kept its seven for the touchdown until the halftime break, when they removed the points.

Depth at skill positions was the main takeaway on offense. USC’s receivers and running backs flashed immense potential, and newcomers such as freshman running back Quinten Joyner and transfer Singer showed just how many dangerous options the Trojans have.

“Every day since the start, there’s been competition between the receivers and [defensive backs], and that brings out the best of both sides,” Singer said.

The additions, whether freshman or transfers, have filled holes on both sides of the ball, contributing to a more well-rounded product. It’s the kind of equilibrium that the team needs to take the next step as a national contender.

With the spring game in the rear view, 133 days stand between USC and its season opener against San Jose State August 26.

“We feel like we’ve landed on the right guys, the right kind of players, right kind of people,” Riley said. “These guys got to see a little bit last year of what we’re about, and they wanted to come in and be a part of not establishing but building on the standard and taking this team where we wanna go.”