As USC tries to stabilize against Utah State, the energy — and the tension — ratchet up

USC defensive back John Platterburg upends Alabama running back B.J. Emmons during the season opener. Many Trojans said they plan to bring more intensity to the game Saturday against Utah State.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The entire USC defense streamed onto the field at the end of Wednesday’s practice, the Trojans’ last heavy-contact session before they attempt to stabilize their season against Utah State on Saturday.

For roughly 15 minutes, the defense had been working itself into a lather. After each pass breakup or big hit, the sideline buzzed, as if the players had consumed too much coffee. Now, on the last play, Adoree’ Jackson swatted away a long, might-have-been-a-touchdown pass down the far sideline.

So the defense sprinted to the end zone, circled around Jackson and danced.

USC has responded to the indignity of a 52-6 loss to Alabama and a head-spinning array of off-the-field incidents by increasing its intensity. A spirited, sometimes angry, edge punctuated the team’s practices this week. A brawl broke out Tuesday.

Running back Justin Davis said the emotion reflected the Trojans’ search for the “fire in the belly” that they lost during Saturday’s defeat. They hope they rediscover it.


“I know my team,” right tackle Zach Banner said. “And I know we’re going to bring it.”

The energy also has been a response to the upheaval that USC hoped it had left behind upon promoting Clay Helton to coach. The past two weeks of USC football have read like overwrought UCLA fan fiction.

National commentators pounded USC players who crawled out of the tunnel pre-game last week. Linebacker Jabari Ruffin was suspended for a half and required to write an apology letter for stomping on the groin of an Alabama player. JuJu Smith-Schuster, the team’s best receiver, sparked a fight at Tuesday’s practice, then stomped off in a huff and needed to be coaxed back to the field.

There was the heartbreaking: A key starter, center Toa Lobendahn, was declared out for the season after undergoing his third knee surgery.

There was the ridiculous: Steve Sarkisian, who was fired by USC last season for erratic behavior and alcohol-related incidents and later sued the school, took a job as an offensive analyst for Alabama, the team that had just embarrassed USC and already employs the Trojans coach who preceded him, Lane Kiffin.

And there was the troubling: Linebackers Osa Masina and Don Hill remain under investigation for sexual assault. Neither has been charged with a crime, and they have been allowed to participate in team activities, but they will not play for the second consecutive week.

On the field, the situation was hardly better. USC’s blowout loss to Alabama exposed major flaws, especially among the Trojans’ highly touted — but now injury-dented — offensive line. USC rushed for just 64 yards on 30 carries against Alabama, and 46 yards came on one play.

The Trojans can’t yet salvage their season against Utah State. Their first crack at that will present itself next week, at Stanford. But they can adjust their trajectory, and perhaps avoid further embarrassment.

“Everybody knows what happened,” Jackson said. “They don’t want to see it happen again.”

Banner said the rebound began immediately. Seventy players showed up to lift weights, watch film and eat together Sunday, he said, an unusually high number for the off-day after a game.

By the time USC (0-1) met with reporters, the team vowed it had repaired Saturday’s issues.

The mental mistakes on defense? “We’ve moved on, and we’ve fixed it,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.

The porous offensive line? “We didn’t execute the way we practiced,” Banner said. “Bottom line.”

Asked whether he was concerned about USC’s running game, offensive coordinator Tee Martin answered, “No,” and immediately moved on to the next question.

Utah State should present a respite in an otherwise fierce schedule, but the Aggies (1-0) are no cupcake. In 2013, USC narrowly escaped with a 17-14 win. Utah State has a big-play quarterback, Kent Myers, who passed for 16 touchdowns with three interceptions in limited time last season, and an explosive running back, Devante Mays, who rushed for 208 yards and three touchdowns last week against Weber State.

Helton remarked Tuesday that he wished his angry team could play the next game already. But he acknowledged that intensity alone won’t fix USC’s problems.

The Trojans began the Alabama game with similar fire, some players noted.

“Sometimes they do the extra instead of just doing their job,” Helton said. “They try to do something too much. And you do have to guard against that. We’re preaching over and over and over again: Just do your job.”

Twitter: @zhelfand