Perfect opening for a new-look Trojans team

With 13 freshmen, 23 newcomers and 67 players in all in the 55-6 romp over Arkansas State, this was the way USC hoped to start.

There were years when the opener for USC was an Auburn on the road or a Virginia Tech back at FedEx Field in suburban DC. And those games were perfect for those Trojan teams.

Just as Saturday's 55-6 win over Arkansas State in front of an enthusiastic late-night gathering of 79,809 at the Coliseum was perfect for this team this year. Absolutely perfect.

No way the 67 USC players in this game could have gotten more out of any first game than they did against an athletic Arkansas State team that had scored 30 or more points in 32 of its last 57 games. An Arkansas State team that hadn't been held to fewer than six points since Alabama shut out the Red Wolves in 2008.

That USC managed to play 13 true freshmen while debuting a total of 23 first-time Trojans could not matter more. Sure, the back-to-back Sun Belt games with Idaho coming in next week will be a different deal.

But USC could not have gotten more out of this one. The Trojans know what they have to work on (pass protection, more push from the O-line in short yardage situations for two that are obvious).

But as Su'a Cravens noted of USC's four turnovers created to none given up, "We did it with a lot of guys in the game . . . I feel pretty good about that."

It was a shared emotion. Lots of Trojans, especially the young guys, felt pretty good about themselves. But they weren't alone.

"That was my favorite thing," Cody said, talking about being back there with any of the freshman trio of "Ced, Dominic and RoJo," that made his eighth four-touchdown pass of his career almost an afterthought.

"They gave Tre a breather," Cody said of his fellow senior Madden, who had his fifth career 100-yard rushng game in his last six with 106 yards on 12 carries -- an 8.8-yard average with a 65-yard cutback-across-the-field TD run his career long.

"Now we left some stuff out on the field," Cody said, "but we played hard."

And ran hard with Ronald Jones II and Aca'cedric Ware both getting their first career touchdowns in their first game. Jones' came on a quick-as-a-wink 44-yard straight handoff that had him hit a seam that hadn't been there all night. And then it was. And he hit it. And he was gone.

Between them, Jones (86 yards on six carries) and Ware (28 on six) racked up 114 yards on a dozen rushes. The only negative Steve Sarkisian said of this game was that USC got to run just 64 plays, 42 fewer than in last year's Fresno State opener. But they made the most of them.

And Dominic Davis may have just gotten two yards on his lone carry but he caught two passes for 53 more. That's 167 yards rushing and passing for the three freshmen.

So there's that. But it didn't stop with the offense. It actually was better on defense. A much better USC defense that tackles and pursues unlike almost anything we saw last year.

Start with freshman Cameron Smith, the first rookie inside linebacker to start for USC since Riki Gray (now ) did it back in 1978. And all he did was lead the team in tackles with seven (tying Matt Lopes).

But he did miss an interception that hit him in the hands on a ball he didn't see right away. And after telling Su'a, who did get an interception, his eighth of his career, that he'd get one too, he knows "I'm going to hear it from him," Smith said with a big grin.

Another freshman, Iman Marshall, had six tackles, same as defensive star of the game safety/corner Chris Hawkins, who had an interception and a fumble recovery. "Just trying to get better," Iman said. "I played all right for the first game."

So did linebacker Osa Masina, who joined the freshman scoring parade with a 46-yard scoop and score while posting four tackles of his own. "Honestly, I was thinking don't stop running, you can score . . . that's the most exciting thing I've ever done in my life. I didn't see myself scoring a touchdown."

Then there was the USC receiving corps. "All 11 of us caught a pass," Isaac Whitney said after catching two for 38 yards. JuJu Smith-Schuster, with four catches for 89 yards, and Steven Mitchell Jr., with four for 28, both scored TDs.

"I just want to be a playmaker," Whitney said. And there's the key. Everywhere you looked, on offense or defense, you had guys making plays. This was different.

Although Adoree' Jackson, after getting pulled in the first half after a 31-yard punt return on which he pulled up lame, didn't get much chance. They called it an abdominal strain but Adoree' was pushing on what looked more like a hip pointer when he was showing people.

And Mitchell Jr.'s wrist injury was negative when they X-rayed it.

So plenty to work on. But with 509 yards of offense on those 64 plays, a lot got done. Maybe even more on defense, holding the Red Wolves to six points and playing hard-nosed, gang-tackling football for the most part.

And yet there's a whole lot to work on. But even more to work with.

Like those 13 true freshmen. And those 23 Trojan first-time gamers. And those 67 game participants who will all get the chance to do this again next week when Idaho comes to town (5 p.m., Pac-12 Networks).

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.


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