The last thing defensive tackle Darrell Russell wanted to hear after the Trojans' 45-7 rout of San Jose State was that he and his defensive teammates were dominant Saturday at the Coliseum.
"We played nowhere near our potential," said Russell, a 6-foot-4, 320-pound sophomore. "We just have to use this game as a steppingstone for the rest of the season."
In their first game under new defensive coordinator Keith Burns, the Trojans gave up 13 first downs and 247 total yards to the Spartans but held them to one touchdown drive early in the second half.
"Because we came away with a win, I would give us a 10," said Burns, who rated the defense on a one-to-10 scale. "But in terms of where we want to be, I would give us a six."
In limiting San Jose State to 4.26 yards per play, the Trojans had many defensive standouts, including backs Brian Kelly, Jesse Davis and Daylon McCutcheon--each of whom had an interception; linemen Willie Lowery, Israel Ifeanyi and Russell--who teamed up for three of the Trojans' four sacks; and linebackers Errick Herrin and Scott Fields--each of whom had four tackles.
"They key for me was to try and disrupt their timing passing offense," Ifeanyi said. "I just tried to make their quarterback step up and not get his rhythm."
USC's defense had to step up early when the Trojans had problems scoring in the first half. After a scoreless first quarter, USC shut down the Spartans in the second quarter while the Trojans took a 21-0 lead.
"We had good punch off the ball, but we can still improve in our overall get off," Russell said. "We did some good things, but then we let up in some other areas."
USC's biggest defensive lapse came at the start of the third quarter when the Spartans took the second half kickoff and marched 70 yards in 13 plays to cut the Trojans' lead to 14 points.
"A lot of our little mistakes caught up with us on their first drive after halftime," safety Sammy Knight said. "We didn't give up any big plays, but they were able to get yards on us underneath."
What the Spartans did on their only scoring drive is what opponents will try to do against USC for the rest of the season: move the ball with a possession-passing game.
Under Burns' 5-2 attack defense, the Trojans' secondary is schooled to not allow big pass plays. Against San Jose State, USC allowed the Spartans to complete 18 of 29 pass attempts, but for only 177 yards.
"That pretty much is our style, and that is to read our keys in front of us and then make the plays," said cornerback Quincy Harrison, who led the Trojans with six tackles. "We'll get better as the season goes on."
McCutcheon, a freshman from Bishop Amat High, used this technique to perfection at the start of the fourth quarter when he intercepted a pass from Dan O'Dell and returned it 35 yards for USC's final touchdown.
"[Secondary] Coach [Dennis] Thurman told me to do everything I'm supposed to first and the big plays will happen," McCutcheon said. "I wasn't looking for the big play, but once the ball is in the air, I'm going to go after it. It's really a freshman's dream come true to score a touchdown in his first game."
Said Ifeanyi: "We played well enough to win, but we've just scratched the surface of our ability."