Trojans rebuilding brick by brick

LOS ANGELES -- Troy wasn't sacked in a day. Rome wasn't built in a day.

It took NCAA investigators four years to bring the USC football program to its knees, so give this team a little time to stagger to its feet and regain its old, confident gait. Games like Saturday's, a zany 34-33 victory over Arizona State against a lackluster Coliseum backdrop, counts as a baby step. Add them all up in a year or two and maybe they'll add up to a giant leap.

Or maybe not. For every sign of progress, you also see a pocket of stagnation with this team. It's even harder to see this team's future than that of most groups of college-age men.

After what these guys have been through in the previous month -- two last-second losses and a hit-and-run collision with No. 1 Oregon -- they were just relieved to be the ones whose band got to play at the end. If you're going to rebuild a culture of winning, you've got to win -- not look good losing.

Playing in front of barely more than 68,000 fans with three losses by early November isn't what most of these guys are used to, but it's all about adjusting to the realities of the moment and coping.

"It's tough coming off a loss and then coming into this game, one you would expect us to win big," linebacker Malcolm Smith said. "You can't really say it changed our whole mindset, though. We're going to continue to fight this whole season. That's all we can do."

The Trojans (6-3, 3-3 in the Pac-10) made just enough plays at the end to survive themselves. They blocked a point-after attempt and returned it the length of the field for a hard-fought two points. They got a late field goal from struggling kicker Joe Houston. They also blew a 15-point third-quarter lead, and if ASU kicker Thomas Weber hadn't hooked a 42-yarder with less than 90 seconds left, they probably would have lost.

It wasn't exactly by-the-numbers winning football, but what about this team so far has been orthodox? They've got all week to iron out the details. And meanwhile, the opponent was the one pounding its helmets into the turf in frustration. That's progress.

"To come in here and finish off strong and get the win was huge," linebacker Devon Kennard said.

USC's young defense, much maligned early in the year for perfectly good reasons, showed some aggression it has sorely lacked much of the season. It overcame an early gaffe -- receiver Jamal Miles completed a 54-yard pass on the first play from scrimmage -- to generally stymie everything ASU tried in the first half.

The Trojans pass-rushers figured they might have a good day and they did, harrying Steven Threet relentlessly. They sacked him four times in the first half, though they seemed to ease off the throttle in the second half and he nearly punished them for it.

Even when Threet got the ball away, the Trojans rush left their mark. Wes Horton was in the process of bear-hugging Threet when he tried to flick the ball for a short completion near the sideline and instead threw it right to Smith. Thanks in part to Jurrell Casey's pancake block of Threet near the goal line, Smith took it back 74 yards for a touchdown early in the third quarter.

The Trojans easily could have built a big lead, but the offense tended to stall early and Houston missed two short field goals, one of them clanging off an upright. This is not a polished team, but nobody's going to be too worked up about the messy details right now. USC is trying to build a foundation for success by the time it emerges from the stiffest NCAA sanctions in about 22 months. It's all about building a strong foundation, not doing finished work.

Young players played big roles Saturday, and looked comfortable doing so. Sophomore safety T.J. McDonald blocked two first-half punts, freshman tailback Dillon Baxter had his biggest role to date and young defenders Kennard and Horton made some impact plays. Casey, a junior who might stick around for his senior year, tackled Threet on a key two-point conversion attempt.

Not that there aren't a few cracks in the cement. The USC kickoff team looked like it was trying to tackle LeQuan Lewis in the dark during his 100-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter. Thompson ran straight through the heart of the coverage, charging through a sequence of arm tackles.

Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley has played two of his weaker games this year in back-to-back weeks. He was out of sync against Oregon (in a game that called for perfection) and he had some ill-timed mistakes Saturday.

He threw an interception immediately after McDonald's second blocked field goal set him up at the 9-yard line. He also threw the ball behind David Ausberry, who tipped it directly into the hands of cornerback Omar Bolden, who ran it back 66 yards for an ASU touchdown that resurrected the Sun Devils' hopes.

It wasn't the most satisfying win, but it left this team about where you'd expect it to be: in the early stages of the rebuilding effort.

"It's a whole different feeling to win these last-minute games than to lose them," McDonald said.

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