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USC’s T.J. McDonald has bounced back after slow start

USC’s defense has improved since its embarrassing season-opening performance against Hawaii.

Perhaps no player reflects that more than safety T.J. McDonald.

The sophomore from Fresno, after missing several tackles against Hawaii, has played two consecutive solid games and appears to be maturing into a leader as the No. 20 Trojans prepare for their Pacific 10 Conference opener Saturday at Washington State.

A week after making a team-best 14 tackles and thwarting a Virginia touchdown with his first interception, McDonald had a sack and six other tackles in the Trojans’ 32-21 victory at Minnesota.

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The 6-foot-3, 205-pound McDonald “is probably, statistically, playing as well as any safety in the country,” Coach Lane Kiffin said Wednesday.

McDonald ranks seventh in the Pac-10 in tackles, averaging 8.3 per game.

“You can’t get caught up in counting,” he said. “I just do everything I can to be ready — practice hard, listen to my coaches and study film.

“That allows you to be set free when it’s game time. So I was able to go out there [against Minnesota] and play and I didn’t have to think much.”

Washington State features quarterback Jeff Tuel, who has passed for five touchdowns with one interception, running back James Montgomery and receivers Marquess Wilson and Jared Karstetter.

Kiffin hopes to keep McDonald and the rest of the Trojans on point when they travel to Pullman, Wash., to play the 1-2 Cougars in a game that starts at noon and lacks the buildup of a nationally televised event.

“These guys have been so programmed to be in so many [nationally televised] games that these are the games you worry most about,” Kiffin said. “You’re going to go up there, assume it’s not going to be sold out and assume it won’t be the energy around a 12 o’clock kickoff like what they’re used to seeing.”

Not worried

Kiffin reiterated that he was not concerned about USC’s slide in the rankings. The Trojans have fallen two spots after each of their victories.

“Maybe we’ll go 5-0 and be out of the top 25,” he said. “If we keep winning and go down that’s fine. Our goal is to win games, not to impress pollsters or cover spreads.”

Quick hits

Defensive linemen Armond Armstead and Nick Perry, tailback Marc Tyler, linebacker Michael Morgan and tight end Blake Ayles were limited in practice. … Kiffin said no determination had been made regarding a starting tailback for Saturday’s game. … Freshman tailback D.J. Morgan, who is coming back from knee surgery, participated in scout-team drills for the first time after being limited to individual drills since training camp. Kiffin has said that Morgan will redshirt.

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein


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