- Mark Saxon, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- At one point in the first half of USC's spring game at the Coliseum on Saturday, coach Lane Kiffin had the feeling he was trapped in an era before he was born, a time of free love but highly confined offenses.
"It kind of felt like a 1960s scrimmage for a while," Kiffin said.
His highly touted sophomore quarterback couldn't find anybody open and, when he finally got the ball down field, the receiver fumbled. The running game was largely bottled up. The blocking was a mess. The execution was sloppy.
Finally, Kiffin got his offense together and made sure it heard what he thought of its performance in front of about 15,000 fans.
"We told the players at halftime, 'We're going to take your scholarship checks and give them back to the fans that came out today,'" Kiffin said. "That was an embarrassing performance."
After Kiffin's chat, the offense finally found some tempo in the second half. The day was highlighted by a dazzling spin move to start a 57-yard run by freshman tailback Dillon Baxter. It included a big day by backup quarterback Mitch Mustain and one impressive scoring drive from the first unit. USC's offense at least showed hints of promise Saturday, and for now, it'll have to cling to those.
Just don't expect these 2010 Trojans to summon comparisons with Pete Carroll's high-flying teams from the middle of the last decade. If USC gets back to the pinnacle of college football, it likely will do so through a more methodical approach.
"I think our defense has a chance to be real good," Kiffin said. "I think our offense has a long, long, long ways to go, especially in the run game. As you look out there, I think we've got two pretty good quarterbacks."
As ex-USC offensive coordinator Norm Chow says, if you've got two quarterbacks, you really don't have a quarterback.
Kiffin opened the spring by declaring the competition open, but to no one's surprise it ended with the incumbent, Matt Barkley, holding his spot. Barkley completed 7 of 16 passes for 87 yards and a touchdown without an interception Saturday. Working against the second-team defense, Mustain completed 19 of 29 passes for 299 yards and five touchdowns.
Barkley didn't throw an interception in four spring scrimmages. It was that clear-headed decision-making and conservative approach that Kiffin said gave him the edge over Mustain.
Barkley's improvement has become the cornerstone on which USC hopes to rebuild its offense, which hasn't particularly dazzled since 2005. Things reached a nadir of sorts last season. With Barkley starting as a true freshman, the Trojans ranked 64th nationally in scoring offense and 54th in passing offense.
The idea is to eliminate the really bad stuff so you eventually can do some good things. That's why Barkley and Kiffin emphasized the lack of interceptions. It's not exactly setting the high bar high, but it's a good first step.
"From where we were last year, from my experience, we've progressed greatly," Barkley said. "I've grown so much in my decision-making, not forcing the ball, knowing the offense and being able to talk to guys about that."
USC's best hope for regaining some of the waning glory of the Carroll era might simply be to let time pass. Starting as a true freshman is difficult enough. Steering a team with national title hopes might have been an unrealistically difficult task for Barkley. In a way, Carroll might have done Kiffin a favor by playing the guy ahead of his time.
The veteran players insist they have more confidence in him now that he no longer is a newcomer to campus life.
"He improved tremendously," fifth-year senior tailback Allen Bradford said. "He's a real vocal leader now and he's out there trying to play mistake-free football. He's telling us where to go and what's happening. As long as he just is a voice out there and just always wants to compete and always wants to play hard, there's no telling how far the offense is going to go."
It started off seeming to go nowhere for most of Saturday. On Barkley's first pass, defensive end Nick Perry got in the backfield, reached up and batted the ball down. Barkley hit a couple of short passes on the drive, but kicker Joe Houston mis-hit a weak 45-yard field goal that also was wide right.
Barkley's only touchdown pass came two plays after his interception-less spring nearly came to an end. Cornerback Shareece Wright jumped and nearly snared a pass intended for Travon Patterson, the same guy Barkley found streaking down the middle for a 41-yard scoring play a couple of minutes later. It was Barkley's last play of the scrimmage. He smacked his hand on defensive lineman Jurrell Casey's helmet on his follow through.
"Throw your hand full-force into a wall," Barkley said. "Not the best feeling."
The fans felt his pain. In all, the offense prevailed 48-30 in the ad-hoc scoring system USC came up with to give the fans something to keep track of. The vast majority of the action came with the second-unit offense on the field. In fairness, injuries made it an unfair playing field. The USC offense was without its best receiver, Ronald Johnson, both tight ends, Blake Ayles and Rhett Ellison, and a key lineman or two.
Still, the Trojans have come to expect a bit more when they've got the ball.
"[Kiffin] told us that's not what he expects from an offense of a USC team," Bradford said.
Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
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