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After an underwhelming start, USC's offensive line has come alive

After an underwhelming start, USC's offensive line has come alive
USC offensive linemen Nico Falah (74), Damien Mama (51) and Chad Wheeler (72) prepare to block for quarterback Sam Darnold (14). (Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

It was as close as an offensive line gets to bliss. Early in Saturday's game against Arizona, when there was no score, USC sent out six linemen for a play near the goal line. The Wildcats had no shot.

On the left side, tackle Chad Wheeler shoved a linebacker toward the sideline and guard Damien Mama drove his defender two yards downfield. Center Nico Falah steered a defensive tackle four yards away from the runner.

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Closer to the point of attack, Viane Talamaivao helped Falah, then rammed into a linebacker. Zach Banner chipped an end, then engaged the safety, looking like a father toying with a child. Beside him, Chuma Edoga spun the defensive end around so the defender was looking at the goalposts as running back Ronald Jones II shot past into the end zone without encountering the least bit of resistance.

The Arizona line had been overwhelmed. USC had executed the play flawlessly. It was what the Trojans expected from the beginning of the season but had not seen until recently.

"That is the group that has improved with every week and I think is playing their best ball to date," Coach Clay Helton said. "We've made this three-game run right here, and a lot of that is due to the offensive line's performance."

A few analysts had tabbed USC's line as among the best in the nation entering the season, but the unit did little to confirm those prognostications early on. Alabama made USC look like a Peewee team. Stanford also controlled the point of attack.

Fortunes began to turn during USC's three-game winning streak. The Trojans have given up just one sack in that span. They have run for an average of 222 yards per game. The yards per run have increased 30%, from 4.3 to 5.6.

Helton said the linemen have generated a better initial push, which has allowed them to peel off to engage defenders down the field. The penetration USC saw early on has abated.

"They really are doing a really nice job of controlling the line of scrimmage," Helton said.

The group has had help. An easier schedule has provided less resistance on the defensive front. Quarterback Sam Darnold's elusiveness can mask protection breakdowns. And Justin Davis' surge at running back boosted the rushing totals.

But Darnold isn't the only player avoiding losses. USC has given up just three tackles for loss per game over the past three games. And Davis had been running well, but USC ran for 320 yards against Arizona when he was injured.

"We are progressing every week," Banner said.

"And we demand it of them," Helton said. "Credit to them. They're playing to their level right now. They're playing to what we expect them. And it needs to continue."

Polling up

For the first time since the preseason, USC appeared on the ballots of a few Associated Press top 25 voters.

The Trojans still aren't close to cracking the actual rankings, but they were listed among "others receiving votes." If the rankings extended far enough, USC would be No. 35.

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It's the first time USC has received any votes during the season. In the preseason ranking, USC was No. 20.

Quick hits

USC will shift its bye-week practices to Cromwell Field at the Loker Track Stadium, in order to help the grass regrow at Howard Jones Field.

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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