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Opponent Defense Preview: USC

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Right when we thought the Trojans were a dumpster fire, they turn their season around and look kinda scary.

NCAA Football: Alabama vs Southern California Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Sorry for the delay on this week’s defensive preview! Without further ado, let’s hop to it.


Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast returned to USC this year after a a couple years in the NFL and brought with him the ambitious attempt at turning the Trojans’ trenches into a strength by introducing the 5-2 defense as their base. As intimidating as that sounds, it’s in many ways a scarier-sounding 3-4. Conquest Chronicles, SC’s SB Nation site, has a good explanation right here.

So how has this new aggressive defense turned out?

Well, at this point, USC is still synonymous with secondary athleticism and not their front lines. There is a reason for this. That being said, there’s also a reason for their infamous secondary; the threat at any moment of someone in the defensive backfield making a play is real. That’s just what happens when you’ve got Adoree’ Jackson and Iman Marshall on either side of the field.

Even without much assistance from the front seven, the Southern Cal defensive backs have done a solid job of limiting opposing quarterback efficiency, where they’re ranked 46th in the country. Meanwhile, roughly a third of their turnovers are interceptions (eight on the year) and they’re giving up 220 passing yards per game.

The front seven, particularly the line, have been considered a relative weakness for the Trojans when compared to the secondary (and it’s no help that LB Su’a Cravens left early for the NFL). They’re giving up an average of 153 yards per game on the ground, but more telling are their struggles getting leverage at the line of scrimmage. The Trojans haven’t had much success getting into the backfield for tackles per loss nor for sacks, where they have even more difficulty. No matter how athletic the secondary, that lack of pressure won’t hold up against the Huskies given Jake Browning’s superb ability to protect the ball.

The most USC-ish of USC-related stats, however, are almost certainly left over from Sark:

The Trojans are 50th in opponent 3rd down conversion percentage (.373), 111th in penalties per game (7+), 121st in penalty yards per game (71.6). What does this tell us? Although one of Clay Helton’s priorities since becoming head coach has been changing the culture from the stereotype of Hollywood pretty boys, there are still clear remnants of Sark’s culture with which we’re all too familiar in the Northwest. Essentially, USC is still on some level a team where the players are athletic freaks (and yes, that is a compliment) but lack discipline, reliability, and the traits that Washington has come to exemplify. No doubt that should change as Helton takes over and solidifies his culture.

And yet in spite of these flaws, the Trojans’ final product — and the one that matters — is more than capable; they allow a quite respectable 23.4 points per game, which is easily in the top 40 scoring defenses in the country.

Bottom Line

I keep wanting to say Washington’s key will be heavily utilizing the run game, but I said that against Cal among other times and UW’s offense keeps proving just how much they prioritize the passing game. They also keep proving that that works fine for them.

That seems like it could, in spite of USC’s strengths, remain the case Saturday given the Trojans’ difficulty pressuring quarterbacks. They only have 1.78 sacks on the year and one of Browning’s greatest assets is his ability to protect the ball. When he’s given a clean pocket, this is especially the case. With that in mind, I don’t think it’s insane to say that any turnovers from the air will have to come from pure athletic insanity by the SC defensive backs. Otherwise I can’t help but see Browning putting up a pretty good game.

Still though, I can’t help but say, “run game.”

If I were a gambling woman, I would put money on both Coleman and Gaskin having a few really nice runs. Fortunately for my financial literacy, I’m not that type.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.