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Opponent Defense Preview: USC

Want to feel sad? Read on about the star of their defensive line.

Utah v USC Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

I’m gonna be real: I have no idea if USC is good or not, which is the worst thing to feel about an upcoming opponent. After all, it’s all the stress of “This game might suck,” without the assurance of “Because the opponent’s definitely worthy.”

With all that uncertainty, here’s what we do know:

Personnel and What to Expect

USC’s defense is interesting this year. On one hand, they’re pretty young and mostly without well-established upperclassmen leaders like Porter Gustin or Cameron Smith. On the other hand, they’re noticeably more cohesive than last year.

Just like most USC teams since Pete Carroll left, they could be pretty good or they could be about to step off a cliff. At this point, who even knows? Certainly not I.

Defensively, they’ve at least been consistent so far. Each offense they’ve played has scored somewhere between 20 and 30 points. Each offense they’ve played has also been generally regarded as pretty okay albeit not spectacular.

Personnel-wise, this is pretty much a who’s who of players Washington recruited and didn’t get. Otherwise, it’s interesting seeing them as one of the few Pac-12 teams that rolls out a more traditional 4-3 formation quite often. They still probably line up in nickel more often — mostly 4-2-5 and some 3-3-5, too — but so far they’ll be the most “stay heavy and force the quarterback to throw” team Washington plays so far.

Their strength lies foremost on the defensive line, especially in the interior. This would stink under normal circumstances, but it particularly stinks for Dawg fans given that one half of this starting unit is former Husky commit and rumored recipient of shady crootin’ gifts, Marlon Tuipulotu, who’s been barely short of a monster four weeks into the season. Next to him is Jay Tufele, who’s also been pretty lights out. Also in the rotation is Brandon Pili, the Alaska/Oregon product who Washington pursued.

The edges are fun in that USC, unlike a lot of schools, still primarily uses traditional hand-in-the-dirt defensive ends. What? That’s still allowed? Heck yeah it is.

The biggest splash here has been true freshman Drake Jackson, a former high four-star recruit whose name has been called by announcers increasingly a lot so far. For what it’s worth, Jackson forced the game-winning safety against Utah. On the other end of the spectrum is Christian Rector, who’s been a presence on USC edge for what feels like one million years.

This unit has looked quite good so far, albeit not flawless. Against interior and especially zone runs, opposing running backs have been mediocre at best and often absolutely useless. Outside of that, they all but dominated against stretch runs and general runs outside the tackles against BYU, then looked vulnerable there against Utah. And really, isn’t that kinda peak USC?

The pass rush has also been quite interesting; Jackson obviously has been a problem for opposing offenses especially, and there’s times where they look very good there, too. But offensive lines that get it done can hold them at bay quite a bit, just not forever. This was super apparent against BYU, where the pass rush would be rather disruptive for a couple plays, only to give Zach Wilson a hundred seconds in the pocket a play later.

In fact, if anything, much of USC’s defense against BYU could be credited not to the line but to the secondary, given that Wilson would be given, like, seven seconds in the pocket and still be holding on to the ball. Against BYU, that was almost exclusively the source of USC’s pressure on Wilson. More on that later.

Behind them, the linebackers are a pretty interesting crew. You’re mostly gonna hear the names of Hunter Echols, Palaie Gaoteote, and John Houston, the latter being one of two seniors listed in the two-deep along with the aforementioned Rector.

With USC playing a 4-3 more often than many teams, the linebackers seem to come into play more than a typical Pac-12 team regardless of whether they’re dropping back or bringing pressure. So far, it’s become apparent that their roles will change a lot depending on whether the defense respects the quarterback unlike, say, a UW defense whose first priority is always and forever stopping explosive passing plays. Against Stanford and the backup, Davis Mills, for example, holy crap did they stack the box almost the whole game. Against BYU, however, they would typically not bring a lot of pressure and then ramp it up for a sequence or two. This had varying degrees of success.

Against Utah, their play was similarly variable, but that showed up primarily against the run. The biggest weakness clearly seemed to be with power runs, pulling guards, etc., which Zack Moss and Co were able to make some pretty big plays out of. This was one of the rare times where an offense had any significant success in the run.

Otherwise, the one thing Utah taught everyone not to do against this team — especially against these linebackers — was to attempt screen passes in any way. Or, as I wrote in my notes: “Poor Britain Covey, he is a gem and doesn’t deserve this.” “This” being the absolute beating he took as Utah attempted to move their offense with screen passes to him.

Lastly, the secondary.

It should be noted that, for all the love the defensive line has gotten, the defensive backs’ performance has been typically more impressive to me when it comes to pressuring a quarterback. Remember, like, three paragraphs ago where I said Zach Wilson often had a thousand seconds in the pocket and yet still never threw it? Yeah.

The biggest impact player here has been Talanoa Hufanga, the safety from Corvallis and leader in tackles, but Washington may dodge a bullet if it turns out he has to sit out this game with a concussion. Whether reading eyes in the passing game or helping with run support, he’s huge. His backup is another former Husky target, Isaiah Pola-Mao, who’s had moments of high havoc — for example, a sack against Utah and interception against Fresno State — but isn’t as consistent or as good of a tackler as Hufanga. Pretty much, Pola-Mao is the quintessential USC player: really good based mostly off pure talent, but not consistent.

Overall, the secondary is where USC’s program shortcomings gets saved based on the caliber of athlete they recruit. Even for non-USC fans, the names are familiar: Pola-Mao and Hufanga, Olaijah Griffin (matched up very well against 6’7” Colby Parkinson versus Stanford), Greg Johnson (interception versus Stanford), Isaac Taylor-Stuart, Chris Steele, Chase Williams.

That’s an average 247 rating of .963. Say what you will about how ratings are an inexact science — if you’re Clay Helton, that gives you a lot of leeway for coaching and scheme.

Now, for all they’ve done quite well, it will be interesting to see how this secondary responds against better quarterbacks than they’ve faced and, more importantly, better receivers. UW will show them the former, although in all likelihood they’ll have to wait longer to see the latter.

Bottom Line

I don’t think it can be overstated how much the threat of Eason’s arm should help Washington’s offense. Over and over this year, USC’s shown they will stack the absolute crap out of the box when they don’t respect the quarterback. Plus, in a one-on-one battle, the Trojans’ defensive backs would annihilate the Husky receivers, so Dawg fans are lucky Eason got some practice zipping the ball at light speed into tight windows last week. Also, on that note, man would it be great if Puka could get involved in this game; Fuller and Baccellia being the primary passing threats just don’t inspire a lot of confidence. Although, on the other hand, Hunter Bryant is probably gonna be the number one target. Please, Lord, make that last sentence be prescient.

Also in the pass, this will be a really important game for Nick Harris to be fully on for. The fact is that this front seven varies their approach and pressure often, and Harris making sure the offensive line is prepared each snap will have a massive effect on the Huskies’ passing success.

Then, on the ground, we should all come to terms now with the fact that big chunk yards won’t come often, if at all. Given these circumstances, the ability to fall forward at the point of contact becomes invaluable, meaning Richard Newton is probably gonna be the go-to — especially given USC’s tackling isn’t their most consistent ability.

Furthermore, in the run, Washington would be well-advised to use a lot of pulling guards and general power blocking; while there aren’t gonna be huge plays on the ground, if there are a few, it will almost certainly result from a play that follows that idea.

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