McDon­ald quickly im­proves

Los Angeles Times - - College Football - Gary Klein gary.klein@latimes.com twit­ter.com/la­timesklein

USC’s de­fense has im­proved since its em­bar­rass­ing sea­son-open­ing per­for­mance against Hawaii.

Per­haps no player re­flects that more than safety T.J. McDon­ald.

The sopho­more from Fresno, af­ter missing sev­eral tack­les against Hawaii, has played two con­sec­u­tive solid games and ap­pears to be ma­tur­ing into a leader as the No. 20 Tro­jans pre­pare for their Pa­cific 10 Con­fer­ence opener Satur­day at Washington State.

A week af­ter mak­ing a team-best 14 tack­les and thwart­ing a Vir­ginia touch­down with his first in­ter­cep­tion, McDon­ald had a sack and six other tack­les in the Tro­jans’ 32-21 vic­tory at Min­nesota.

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound McDon­ald “is prob­a­bly, sta­tis­ti­cally, play­ing as well as any safety in the coun­try,” Coach Lane Kif­fin said Wed­nes­day.

McDon­ald ranks sev­enth in the Pac-10 in tack­les, av­er­ag­ing 8.3 per game.

“You can’t get caught up in count­ing,” he said. “I just do ev­ery­thing I can to be ready — prac­tice hard, lis­ten to my coaches and study film.

“That al­lows you to be set free when it’s game time. So I was able to go out there [against Min­nesota] and play and I didn’t have to think much.” Washington State fea­tures quar­ter­back

Jeff Tuel, who has passed for five touch­downs with one in­ter­cep­tion, run­ning back

James Mont­gomery and re­ceivers Mar­quess Wil­son and Jared Karstet­ter. Kif­fin hopes to keep McDon­ald and the rest of the Tro­jans on point when they travel to Pull­man, Wash., to play the 1-2 Cougars in a game that starts at noon and lacks the buildup of a na­tion­ally tele­vised event.

“These guys have been so pro­grammed to be in so many [na­tion­ally tele­vised] games that these are the games you worry most about,” Kif­fin said. “You’re go­ing to go up there, as­sume it’s not go­ing to be sold out and as­sume it won’t be the en­ergy around a 12 o’clock kick­off like what they’re used to see­ing.”

Not wor­ried

Kif­fin re­it­er­ated that he was not concerned about USC’s slide in the rank­ings. The Tro­jans have fallen two spots af­ter each of their vic­to­ries.

“Maybe we’ll go 5-0 and be out of the top 25,” he said. “If we keep win­ning and go down that’s fine. Our goal is to win games, not to im­press poll­sters or cover spreads.”

Quick hits

De­fen­sive line­men Ar­mond Arm­stead and Nick Perry, tail­back Marc Tyler, linebacker Michael Mor­gan and tight end Blake

Ayles were limited in prac­tice. … Kif­fin said no de­ter­mi­na­tion had been made re­gard­ing a start­ing tail­back for Satur­day’s game. … Fresh­man tail­back D.J. Mor­gan, who is com­ing back from knee surgery, par­tic­i­pated in scout-team drills for the first time af­ter be­ing limited to in­di­vid­ual drills since train­ing camp. Kif­fin has said that Mor­gan will red­shirt.

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