Miller Moss struggles to stand out against the revamped defense in the USC spring game

Los Angeles, CA - April 20: USC quarterback Miller Moss, #7, throws the ball during.

USC quarterback Miller Moss passes during the Trojans’ spring game at the Coliseum on Saturday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Anticipation had waned since his storybook debut, his place as USC’s next starting quarterback all but assured after years of patient waiting. All that was left for Miller Moss to do was finish spring training on a high note, putting to rest any remaining questions about how USC would replace the Heisman winner at quarterback

But nothing about Saturday’s spring game seemed smooth for Moss, whose second impression as USC’s starter included two interceptions. It also wouldn’t provide many answers about where USC’s offense stands in the post-Caleb Williams era.

What Saturday’s exhibition would do is give Lincoln Riley plenty of good examples to point to when asked about his defensive rebuild, as the much-maligned group forced four turnovers and outscored the Trojans’ offense from start to finish. The defense barely needed the 24 points it noted at the start of the scrimmage, as it allowed just 28 from the offense, all coming from the second and third team reserves.

Read more:What’s next for USC quarterback Miller Moss after his righteous arrival?

USC’s first-team defense didn’t allow a goal all afternoon, while the opposing team forced one mistake after another. The surprisingly stingy performance led to a 43-28 win for the defense, which hadn’t had many moral victories over the past two seasons.

“I think you saw some flashes of what we did on the practice field,” Riley said of the defense. “Obviously they created the turnovers, that was probably the story of the day, with the defense making the offense pay for their mistakes.”

Two of those miscues came from Moss, who was under center for a total of just four drives. He had one bad throw from freshman Marcelles Williams, while his second interception came in the end zone when Prophet Brown returned it untouched for a pick-six.

The big plays made for a banner day for USC’s secondary, despite missing two potential starters in Jaylin Smith and UCLA transfer John Humphrey. Maliki Crawford and DeCarlos Nicholson added interceptions of their own to join the party as the group showed off its new size and length.

“We’re put in a position to make these plays and have the freedom to go out and make plays quickly,” Brown said. “If that’s the case, it’s a lot of fun to play defense.”

USC cornerback DeCarlos Nicholson deflects a pass intended for wide receiver Ja'Kobi Lane.USC cornerback DeCarlos Nicholson deflects a pass intended for wide receiver Ja'Kobi Lane.

USC cornerback DeCarlos Nicholson deflects a pass intended for wide receiver Ja’Kobi Lane during the Trojans’ spring game at the Coliseum. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Moss finally managed a touchdown pass on his final drive, finishing 16 of 21 for 133 yards. But on an afternoon that could have been his coronation at the Coliseum, the senior often seemed less sharp than his supposed backup, freshman transfer Jayden Maiava, who completed 15 of 17 passes for 172 yards, a touchdown and an interception.

It’s unlikely that an exhibition alone could in any way sway Riley, who flatly said after the spring game that Moss would be the starter if USC’s season started tomorrow.

“He’s definitely at the forefront now,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

But Riley didn’t want to close the door on the quarterback competition either. He praised Maiava for “improving quickly” and noted that Moss had started USC’s spring drills slowly before finding his stride.

Riley seemed pleased with what he saw from his three quarterbacks. In Moss’s case, the coach said he assumed the quarterback would be “ranking pretty high” when he watched the tape.

USC running back A'Marion Peterson scores a touchdown on linebacker Elijah Newby.USC running back A'Marion Peterson scores a touchdown on linebacker Elijah Newby.

USC running back A’Marion Peterson scores a touchdown on linebacker Elijah Newby during the Trojans’ spring game Saturday. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“It’s not like you have one success and then it’s all easy,” Moss said. “There will be ebbs and flows in this thing.”

How you view Saturday’s spring game in that context is probably a matter of perspective. Did the offense struggle? Or did the defense dominate? Quantifying the progress of both parties based on an exhibition is hardly scientific.

Although for the defense, forcing five turnovers – the last an intercepted throw late in the game – was certainly a convincing start.

“That’s what we have to do,” safety Kamari Ramsey said. “Five choices, that’s the standard.”

Prior to Saturday, little was known about where USC’s defense actually stood throughout the spring. Any details of the defensive overhaul were scarce. Questions about the new schedule were mostly sidestepped by coaches, while players were quiet about their new roles.

Read more:In the busy USC cornerback competition, transfer DeCarlos Nicholson feels at home

An exhibition can only make that image so much clearer. But if there was one takeaway from the new defense’s debut, it’s that confidence is high right now.

Considering how last season ended, that says something. What it could mean for autumn, however, is anyone’s guess.

“It’s definitely a night and day feeling,” defensive end Jamil Muhammad said. “Now we are hungry for more.”

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This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.