Although USC lost all four of its starting linebackers to the NFL draft last spring, the Trojans coaching staff promised there wouldn't be a drop-off at that position this fall.
And for the first seven weeks of the season, there wasn't.
But the last month has been a tough one for the USC defense, which gave up 111 points in three games -- just six fewer points than the Trojans gave up in all 13 of their games last season.
It was a different story Saturday, however, with junior Malcolm Smith, sophomore Chris Galippo and freshman Devon Kennard keying a stout defensive effort in a 28-7 win over UCLA.
"I'm really proud of the whole group," USC Coach Pete Carroll said. "It was huge for us to continue to keep the score down and not really give them a chance to get going. We put together a really good game on defense."
Smith returned a first-quarter interception 62 yards for USC's first touchdown, Kennard pressured UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince into a third-quarter interception that set up USC's second touchdown and Smith (a game-high 15), Kennard (six) and Galippo (five) combined for 21 tackles as the Trojans came within 5:41 of their first shutout in nearly 13 months.
Not bad for a threesome that was starting together for the first time this season, with Kennard having just recently moved from the defensive end to replace Michael Morgan, the only Trojans linebacker to have started a game before this season.
All of which was good news for a defense that started the night with a safety, Taylor Mays, leading the team in tackles.
Last season the Trojans' top four tacklers -- Rey Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Kaluka Maiava and Clay Matthews -- were all linebackers.
This year's group has had some rough patches, though. Smith missed four starts with ankle and shoulder injuries. And Kennard missed two games before making his second start Saturday.
Against UCLA, both made up for lost time.
"He was all over the field," Carroll said of Smith. "Playing without Malcolm . . . really affected us. He's a guy that was one of our core guys. And when we lost him for a few weeks in there, it was a big challenge for us."
As a result the Trojan defense was as good against UCLA as it had been bad in a 55-point shellacking against Stanford, with Will Harris' third-quarter interception leading to the first of two Allen Bradford touchdown runs and Josh Pinkard's fourth-quarter interception halting a UCLA drive deep in USC territory when the game was still close.
The Trojans thoroughly frustrated Prince, UCLA's redshirt freshman quarterback, who completed just 10 of 22 passes before going to the sidelines to stay early in the second half after a hard tackle by Everson Griffin.
USC's offense came to life shortly after that, scoring the final two touchdowns.