Given the circumstances USC faced headed into the Coliseum on Saturday – working with a makeshift offensive line and without a dozen scholarship players expected to contribute in some form this fall – it's no surprise that the crowd of 16,850 in attendance saw a performance that ranged somewhere between ragged and downright boring.
Running back Curtis McNeal rushed for two touchdowns, Dillon Baxter ran for one and threw for another, but the White defense manhandled the Cardinal offense, 42-29, in a modified scoring system that rewarded stops and takeaways by the defense.
"Hopefully we're really good on defense and really good on special teams," coach Lane Kiffin said when asked to evaluate where the Trojans are coming out of spring. "We've got a lot of work to do on offense. It is hard to assess with so many people out for all of spring and so many people coming in that are going to have to play for us. It's really hard to address where we're at and figure it out."
That was most evident in the passing game, working without top receiver Robert Woods, who injured his ankle playing basketball Friday.
Woods went through warm-ups, but was ultimately held out by coaches.
Down to three scholarship receivers, those numbers were further taxed as Brandon Carswell did not play in the second half with concussion-like symptoms and De'Von Flournoy was in and out of the lineup with an ankle injury.
Matt Barkley completed 22 of 42 passes for 212 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions, not taking into account several drops that would have dramatically improved his day.
"I think it's hard to evaluate," Kiffin said of Barkley. "You guys probably had to go to your rosters a lot to know who the guys were out there who were running routes for him."
Backup Jesse Scroggins was 6 of 15 for 68 yards and one interception.
But the struggles through the air were offset by improvement on the ground and defense.
With Marc Tyler (concussion) out, the three available scholarship running backs rushed for 300 yards on 41 carries (7.3 yards per carry).
McNeal led the way with 107 yards, including a 49-yard scoring run on 4th and 1 that finally got the offense on the board on its fourth possession.
"The O-line pretty much stepped their game up today," McNeal said. "They took so much criticism throughout the whole spring and today just came out and played. I just did my part and ran the ball."
For McNeal, it marked the end of a spring of redemption after being ruled academically ineligible last season. He expects to be cleared for 2011 at the end of the spring semester, needing a C average to be reinstated.
D.J. Morgan added 89 yards on 14 carries. Baxter had 104 yards rushing and threw a 3-yard touchdown to Barkley on the final snap.
The maligned defense did not allow points on nine possessions, buoyed by a disruptive defensive line. Nick Perry had two sacks and DaJohn Harris added two tackles for loss.
"The D is playing faster," assistant head coach Monte Kiffin said. "Second year in the system, knowing it better. You see this, you see that.
"We're tackling better because we've worked on it more in practice. It's showing up right now."
The defense might have been even more effective if not for a no-blitzing edict.
Said Monte: "It may not have been my decision. It might have been somebody, a guy with the last name Kiffin."
Of greater interest to Lane was that USC came away healthy, especially after losing defensive tackle Christian Tupou to a torn ACL last year.
There were a handful of minor injuries.
Tight end Rhett Ellison was speared in the back, but X-rays came back negative. Morgan hurt his left shoulder and was in a sling afterwards.