In so many ways, the Trojans' offensive line is halfway there.
Midway through the season, most of what we know about this team has to do with the words "youth" and "potential," which is a nice way of saying that they have a long way to go. No unit embodied that sentiment more at the beginning of the season than the offensive line.
Going into probably their toughest game of the season so far, the first in a string of difficult match ups that make the second half of the schedule much more difficult than the first, they have to deal with a good front seven that head coach Lane Kiffin described as "physical" and a middle linebacker that is playing "lights out." They now have to take the mistakes they made facing ASU's Vontaze Burfict in hopes that Notre Dame's Manti Te'o doesn't do the same damage.
Center Khaled Holmes has heard of the Irish's reputation on defense.
"They run a great scheme and they do it very well. They've got a lot of talent. They are definitely guys that you have to finish up your play or they will just come off the block and make the play," said Holmes.
It would be easy, especially for this line considering its youth and inexperience, to judge their performance based on the strength of their opponent. But Holmes says that is never how they want to grade themselves.
"It's more so on us than our opponent every week and that's how we really have to take it every week, but they present a great challenge for us and we're excited for it."
This line has rotated in a couple redshirt sophomores in John Martinez and Kevin Graf, two true freshmen in Marcus Martin and Aundrey Walker with had a handful of transfers and freshman backing them up. The guard positions have looked more like a game of musical chairs some days and there is essentially a year-long competition at right tackle between Graf and Walker. USC has been searching for the magic combination all year, but that makes it increasingly difficult for this rag-tag group of youngsters to settle in as a unit.
But six weeks later, there seems to finally be some resemblance of a cohesive unit emerging.
"Marcus has done a good job stepping up, a true freshman. John Martinez has gotten so much better from week one. I mean he's really playing at a really high level. Everyone is starting to gel more and more."
The results? The line has given up only four sacks this season, a statistic that no one would have predicted this August and still has some scratching their heads.
"Coach Kiffin has a great scheme in there and of course Matt is just such a great quarterback," said Holmes. "He gets he reads in and gets the ball out so quickly, you can't really complain about anything he's done. He's done a good job up front, but we're just in a good system."
That is only half the story though.
"Any O line, the identity that you want to be is one that can establish the running game and protect the quarterback."
That first part is proving a lot tougher. It helps that USC has a passing game it can rely on, but overall it's been limiting the Trojans' options offensively which will become an increasingly bigger problem with Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon still left on the schedule.
"We have to develop a more consistent running game and that's really the most important thing we have to work on," said Holmes. "We've had flashes, moments where we have been good at it, but we need to develop some more consistency."