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Opponent Defensive Preview: USC Trojans

Let’s talk about every Trojan fan’s favorite coach

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

And so it begins.

Heading into the season, many fans scanned the schedule and knew that our November stretch run could be the difference between a potential College Football Playoff berth and the Las Vegas Bowl. After a scorching hot start to the season, capped by the instant classic win over Oregon, the second half of the season has been decidedly bumpier. Too-close-for-comfort wins over Arizona State and Stanford have poured cold water on the UW hype train, but our Huskies have a chance to regain the momentum this weekend against USC at the LA Coliseum.

USC has always been a mainstay of West Coast football, but Lincoln Riley’s arrival before last season thrust the Trojans back into the spotlight after wandering the wilderness in the post-Carroll era. Riley brought many of his key assistants, staffers, and a few players with him from Oklahoma, including Alex Grinch. The beleaguered DC has a strong resume of coaching positions, including DC of Mike Leach’s best WSU defenses, co-DC at Ohio State, and DC at Oklahoma. However, it seems like the fan base at everyone of those stops grew tired of his defenses’ performances pretty quickly, and his USC tenure has followed a similar pattern.

The Scheme & Personnel

NCAA Football: Southern California at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Last year’s Trojan defense was deeply flawed in part due to an on-going flip of the roster, unfamiliarity in the new system, and questionable defensive strategies, but it was largely ignored as the Trojans led the country in turnover margin. When you have a juggernaut on offense like USC does, extra possessions are extra TDs, which go a long way in covering up all the missed tackles that the defense gave up along the way. That didn’t stop fans and the media from turning up the heat on Riley and Grinch’s approach to defense as early as last season, and I think it’s warranted.

In my opinion, USC’s perceived priority of turnovers over sound defensive fundamentals is a conscientious philosophical decision from Grinch. When I was rewatching USC recent games against Cal and Utah, the thing that stood out to me from their defense was their reckless aggression and knee jerk reaction. Now, I’m not talking about players playing overly aggressively in an unsportsmanlike manner, nor am I talking about overly aggressive blitz calls or something like that. I’m talking about how USC’s defense constantly looks like they’re trying to play at 100 MPH regardless of if they’re going in the right direction. They don’t look like they’re playing under control and it looks like they’re rolling the dice on every play, taking a guess at where the ball may go. Usually, you would only see this from a defense who is completely out matched in talent and who is hunting for the big play since there’s nothing to lose, but that’s not USC. Blue chip transfers, such as DL Bear Alexander (UGA), DL Anthony Lucas (TAMU), LB Mason Cobb (Oklahoma State), and LB Eric Gentry (ASU), have infused the Trojan defense with the top line talent necessary to play CFP-level defense, but they’re just not playing to that level.

The USC defense is looking for the splash play and not the smart play. Instead of anchoring the front or plugging gaps, their defensive front is trying to get upfield for the TFL. That’s fine and good, but when the LBs are expecting to only fill one gap and a rogue DL completely vacates his gap, you’re pretty much guaranteed to give up a first down on a run play. In the secondary, USC DBs want nothing more than to sit back in off-ball catch zone technique and jump routes. Free releases are doled out like candy at Halloween, and even when USC’s DBs are ready to jump underneath routes, that’s their only goal. To jump the underneath route and make a play on the ball. Ever heard of a double move?

Keys to the Game

NCAA Football: California at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

At a high level, the keys to the game will boil down to protecting Penix and making the defense’s aggressive and reactionary tendencies against them. USC’s starting DL is as talented as any we’ve faced this year, but they’re one-dimensional and the depth of talent isn’t quite there. Bullying their DL with gap run schemes or making them run sideline-to-sideline could get them tired out early, which would take the heat off the pressure.

Outside of the protection, Grubb should be considering how he wants to manipulate an already aggressive defense. We have a fairly expansive WR run package that includes Jet Sweeps, End Arounds, Reverses, Reverses into Passes, and the list goes on and on. If USC is going to be jumping out of their cleats in reaction to a simple any kind of quick motion, then every misdirection concept off of motion should be on the table. Those WR runs and the WR Screen package would also get their DL running around the field, tiring them out, and it would also tempt their secondary into quick trigger breaks on the ball that’ll set up the shot plays later in the game.

It should be an offense-heavy game this weekend in LA, and Grubb and Co. should have the answers to a lot of USC’s strengths.