Trojans ready for main course

PULLMAN, Wash. -- It's that same old USC gall. You love it if you root for the Trojans and you hate it if you don't.

Imagine the confidence of a coaching staff that refers to its first four games as the "preseason."

Imagine one that would later admit to using that term, as Lane Kiffin did after Saturday's 50-16 win over Washington State. So, the Trojans' first four games, wins of varying shapes against Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota and Washington State, were basically exhibition games?

That's what he told his team.

"Coach Kiffin said earlier we treated this kind of like a preseason through Game 4," quarterback Matt Barkley said.

I guess the lights finally come on next Saturday night at the Coliseum, when Washington comes to town trying for its second straight win over USC. So, the preseason is finally over, right Lane?

"I don't know that," Kiffin said. "I just know we're 4-0. We wanted to get through these four games healthy, not worrying about the score and then have an idea who our team is. I think we do have that now."

It is beginning to feel like this team is figuring out an identity. At some point, it will have to prove it by doing something other than looking in the mirror. If that first test isn't against Washington, which has shown mixed signals early, it will be the following week at Stanford, maybe the most physical team in the conference.

"The first four games, all that matters is we won all four of them," tailback Allen Bradford said. "Now, we get the meat of our schedule."

USC gets more resistance when it scrimmages than it did from Washington State for most of Saturday, so you had to look closely for signs of emergence. You could see them poking through here and there. USC finally covered the point spread. Maybe that will keep it from sinking in the writers' poll for the fourth straight week.

After a sloppy first half, kept deceptively close by the Trojans' three turnovers, they hit the throttle in the second. USC played a virtually flawless third quarter, turning it into the requisite blowout, and then the second units came on and mopped up professionally in the fourth.

Nobody yet knows how this team measures up against a conference that is showing signs of being the best in the nation, of course. But Saturday had USC feeling as good as it has since the drastic NCAA sanctions hit in June. For the second week in a row, the team sang "Fight On!" in the locker room. For the first week in a row, it felt fulfilled.

"That was the closest we've played to a complete game," Kiffin said.

After giving up 230 yards in the first half, the defense yielded just 93 in the second. It continued to stuff the run, holding Washington State to 67 yards on 26 carries.

After turning the ball over three times in the first, the offense held onto it carefully for the rest of the day.

After causing a blizzard of penalty flags in the first three games, the Trojans played with a little discipline. They lost just 39 yards because of penalties.

They blocked a extra-point attempt and a punt. And they never punted themselves.

This was far from an afternoon of perfection. Other signs are more ominous. This defense, big and powerful, continues to look susceptible when offenses spread it out. Washington State moved 80 yards in nine plays using a spread, no-huddle offense on the opening drive of the game. Clearly, the Cougars had dreamed up that game plan from watching USC cough up 588 total yards to a run-and-shoot team from Hawaii.

And Barkley, who got through the first two games without throwing an interception, has now thrown four in the last two games. Kiffin called Barkley's first-half performance "disappointing." Bradford fumbled for the second game in a row.

If the rest of the nation rolls its eyes at a predictably easy win over hapless Washington State, the Cougars didn't. At least one member of the Washington State team saw a potential conference champion on his field Saturday.

"They're a great ball club across the board," said Washington State receiver Jared Karstetter. "On defense, they're fast and they're physical. On offense, they run the ball well. I just think they're a great team and a great program and have been as long as I can remember."

Of course, everything is different for the Trojans nowadays. As they were making the long walk from the field to their locker room here, a young fan in a Washington State jersey yelled out, "Good luck in your bowl game." The Trojans are banned from competing in a bowl game this season and next. That means their loftiest goal is to finish the season 13-0 and let people wonder where they would have fit into the national-title picture.

That goal seems to be lurking far off somewhere, maybe in the Gobe Desert or perhaps on a tiny little island in the Pacific. This team is young and it's all about incremental steps, but you could make a believable case that it has made four straight weeks of progress. And frankly, since it has viewed these first four games as preseason competition, it probably has been holding a few things back.

In a way, you had to look at the first four opponents as the canvas. Saturday the Trojans didn't paint a masterpiece, but it may have been worthy of a museum somewhere.

"Coach Kiffin said before the game that this would probably be our signature game, where we come together as a team, and I think we really did that," safety Jawanza Starling said. "No matter who you're playing, it's about what we do as a team. It's always about us."

There's that USC swagger again. But will these guys still be so sure of themselves in a month, or even in a week?

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Follow him on Twitter.