For a unit that deservedly picked up a ton of negative publicity in the first half of USC's 2011 season, Saturday's game against Notre Dame represented a significant development for the Trojan offensive line.
Because, for the first time this season, they were actually, legitimately, good -- for an entire game, no less, against a solid defensive team as well.
And, in typical fast-paced sports fan tradition, talk has quickly morphed from the line being USC's biggest weakness to -- maybe, sort of -- one of the Trojans' strengths. Head coach Lane Kiffin squashed any and all of that talk Wednesday, speaking to the media after practice and referencing ESPN College GameDay analyst Lee Corso.
"We’re not there yet," Kiffin said Wednesday. "As Corso says, 'not so fast.'"
It's easy to see what has sparked the positivity. Right guard John Martinez had his best game as a Trojan, as Kiffin himself said earlier this week. Left guard Marcus Martin is starting to show improvement. Aside from the occasional shotgun snap flub, center Khaled Holmes has been consistently good the last two weeks. Left tackle Matt Kalil barely got beat against the Irish, and right tackle Kevin Graf's been better since his horrific Arizona State game.
USC ran for 219 yards against Notre Dame, its best output of the seven-game-strong season. Quarterback Matt Barkley wasn't sacked a single time and actually had some time to stay in the pocket on occasion.
But that's not all the doing of the line.
"We’re excited that we ran the ball well. We’re excited that we had zero sacks," Kiffin said Wednesday. "But, also, Matt (Barkley) helped that. There were a couple sacks in there where Matt got away from stuff. We have a long ways to go up front, and this is going to be a huge test this week.
"These [Stanford] guys are really, really good. Look at their run-defense numbers."
The Cardinal are elite defending the run, led by defensive end Matt Masifilo. Before the Washington game, in which the Huskies actually found success on the ground, Stanford was allowing just over two yards per carry to opponents -- a ridiculously low number boosted by a high amount of sacks, which count against rushing yards at the college level.
They've been mostly great. Look at their games against Colorado's Rodney Stewart (21 yards) and Washington State's Carl Winston (31 yards) for evidence.
It'll be the USC's offensive line's job to prove that maybe -- just maybe -- they're better than their own coach thinks and Stanford D-line isn't as good as advertised.