With the spring game coming up this weekend, the USC offense is trying to get in gear to put on a good show. On Tuesday, that show came in the form of an aerial assault that left several defensive backs shaking their heads as Cody Kessler and Max Browne connected downfield several times for explosive plays.
But then when it came time for the Final Five — USC’s best of five, practice-ending offense vs. defense competition period — the defense rose to the occasion and won once again, despite losing the first two plays. The offense was one play away from a victory and a dominant day, but the defense rose to the occasion with three straight stops.
“Man that irks me so much,” sophomore offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn said. “I’ve got to give credit to them. They came out and they didn’t give up.”
“That’s what it’s all about though, man,” fellow sophomore lineman Viane Talamaivao said. “That’s kind of symbolic of what our team is. Our defense wasn’t having the best day, but they showed up when it was crunch time and when we really needed it too.”
“It’s a tough loss on the chin for the offense because we did have a pretty good day, pretty explosive. But from a team standpoint as a whole that’s what you like to see from your defense.”
While the offense was disappointed with the finish on Tuesday and that the defense has been winning the Final Five battle the majority of the spring, it still has one final opportunity to try to even the score. If the offense can win the spring game (which won’t actually be a game, but a series of team competition periods, similar to last year), Talamaivao thinks that should level the final tally.
“I think so. It is the game so that should even it out.”
Along with Damien Mama, Talamaivao and Lobendahn form the young nucleus the Trojans’ offensive line will revolve around for at least the next two years, barring injuries. The trio, along with receiver Juju Smith and walk-on quarterback Larry Tuileta, came to USC together with a bond based on their Polynesian heritage. The Uce Crew, short for ‘uso’, a Samoan term for brother, as they deemed themselves, gave the trio of offensive lineman a backbone for success before they ever even stepped on campus.
“Just coming in already having a bond, having people that look out for each other, it definitely made the experience more fun coming into college all of us in the same class,” Talamaivao said. “It just made the experience that much more special.”
Lobendahn called their meeting in high school “a blessing.”
“To just grow in that friendship and just keep talking. I was committed to SC at the time, so I was always talking to them about coming together and what a great opportunity it was. Signing Day comes and we’re all here at the same place. It’s just been an honor to be here with those guys and play with them side-by-side. Those are my boys.”
The trio has become a fixture in the offensive line starting unit over the last year with Lobendahn and Talamaivao beginning as the starting guards while Mama worked his way into a rotation with Talamaivao. But following an injury to starting left tackle Chad Wheeler, Lobendahn moved outside for the final stretch of the season.
During spring practice, Lobendahn has worked with the first team at left tackle and as the second-team center. Mama and Talamaivao have been entrenched at the starting guard positions.
“Everyone’s working. Everyone’s jelling together,” Talamaivao said. “But what you see right now may not be what you see in the fall. Only time will tell.”
The offensive line could change, but it’s unlikely that The Uce Crew trio is going anywhere any time soon. They continue to make strides to solidify their positions. Mama has slimmed down from nearly 400 pounds to less than 360, which new offensive line coach Bob Connelly is excited about. He and strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis are also making sure a slimmer, more agile Mama will be just as strong while also being in the proper condition to no longer need a substitute on long drives, which Connelly said a killer of the tempo the Trojans are trying to run.
“In a best case scenario, if your best players are able to play for the course of a game that gives you the best opportunity,” Connelly said.
Talamaivao is the silent assassin for defenses. You never really hear his name during game broadcasts and he isn’t a big standout in practices because he is just quietly and productively accomplishing his assignment. Usually, the more you notice a lineman, the worse his day is going because you only notice when a defender is going by them.
“Spring ball has been going good,” Talamaivao said. “It’s a good measuring stick to see where you’re at and basically what you need to get better at. Every opportunity after practice is an opportunity to get better. I’m enjoying it.”
Lobendahn has made a seamless transition from guard to tackle to part-time center. He has the cerebral capabilities to play all three positions, making him one of the most valuable players on the team. His versatility opens up new options for the coaching staff.
“There’s obviously guys that I feel capable of [playing] both [inside and outside] that are going to have to cross-train and do some of that. Just to be safe,” Connelly said. “You never ever know what’s going to happen and you never want to be caught with your pants down so to speak. Right? You get in a situation where you have a couple of injuries and you’re not expecting it, you better have answers, so it’s nice to be able to cross-train and get some of those guys at least some reps.”
Lobendahn said he tries to focus on each day individually and get better at whichever position he’s at that day. This week, he has returned to left tackle thanks to the return of Khaliel Rodgers as the second-string center. That might be part of why the offense had such a strong day throughout practice on Tuesday. With the top two offensive lines back to full strength, the quarterbacks had the time to complete the deep passes that were so rare last season.
“It was a pretty good practice I’d say overall for offense, throwing bombs and completing them,” Lobendahn said. “Earlier in the spring, I don’t think we were completing a lot of those bombs. We were just starting to hook up better today. It was good to see.”