The anticipation had subsided since his storybook debut, his place as USC's next starting quarterback all but assured after years spent patiently waiting. All that was left for Miller Moss was to close out spring practice on a high note, quieting any remaining questions about how USC would replace its 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. Nor would it offer many answers about where USC's offense stands in its post-Caleb Williams era.

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

USC's first-team defense didn't allow a score all afternoon, while forcing one mistake after the other from its counterpart. Its surprisingly stingy performance led to a 43-28 win for the defense, which hadn't seen many moral victories over the past two seasons.

"I think you saw some flashes of what we've been doing on the practice field," Riley said of the defense. "Obviously creating the turnovers, that was probably the story of the day, the defense making the offense pay for their mistakes."

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

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

"We're being put in position to make these plays and have the freedom to go out there and play fast," Brown said. "When it's like that, it's really fun to play defense."

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

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

"He's certainly ahead right now," he said. "There's no question about that."

But Riley wouldn't close the door on the quarterback competition, either. He praised Maiava for "improving rapidly" and noted that Moss had started USC's spring practices slowly, before finding his stride.

Riley seemed pleased with what he saw from his three quarterbacks. In Moss' case, the coach said he assumed the quarterback would "grade out pretty darn high" when he reviewed the tape.

"It's not that you have success once and it's all easy after that," Moss said. "There's going to be ebbs and flows to this thing."

How you then view Saturday's spring game in that context is likely a matter of perspective. Was the offense struggling? Or was the defense dominating? Quantifying the progress of either side from an exhibition is hardly scientific.

Though, for the defense, forcing five turnovers — the last an intercepted pitch late in the game — was certainly a compelling start.

"That's what we have to do," safety Kamari Ramsey said. "Five picks, that's the standard."

Ahead of Saturday, little was known about where USC's defense actually stood through spring. Any details of its defensive overhaul were scant. Questions about the new scheme were mostly sidestepped by coaches, while players were quiet about their new roles.

An exhibition could only add so much clarity to that picture. But if anything was to be gleaned from the new defense's debut, it's that confidence is high at the moment.

Considering how last season ended, that's saying something. What it might mean by fall, however, is anyone's guess.

"It's definitely a night and day feeling for sure," defensive end Jamil Muhammad said. "Now we're hungry for more."

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