Roll On: Previewing The USC Defense

I have so many conflicted feeling right now.

We’re switching things up a little bit the rest of the year. To satiate everybody’s unending thirst for football talk we’ll be getting our unit previews out a bit earlier in the week, and that means I’m batting leadoff with the USC defense.

Which . . . I dunno. When you write about USC, you always expect extremes and superlatives. Five star this, NFL stud that. And USC does have guys like that. But the defensive results on the field are just meh. Not bad. Not great. If you want to know why, you’ll probably hear a number of explanations. Monte Kiffin blame. Lack of depth from sanctions. Recruiting misses. Regardless, this is a team you can move the ball against.

Well, hypothetically speaking. Since Cal's last win over USC the Bears have averaged 10.2 points per game with a high of 17. Cal has scored less than a touchdown per game since Adimchinobe Echemandu and Reggie Roberson led the upset in 2003. Even if this is the worst USC defense over that span, and even if this is the best Cal offense since 2006*, that's quite a bit of bad mojo to overcome.

So maybe this game is less about Cal vs. USC and more about Cal vs. Cal. I'm sure if you asked, the players would say that the losing streak (and last year's ugly blowout) motivates them. But after so many ugly performances you can't help but wonder. I don't think anybody would argue that the Bears aren't capable of putting up points. But until the offense breaks through skepticism will persist.

*If Saturday's offensive output isn't a mirage, you could actually make this argument. I don't know if you'd win, but the argument could be made.

Personnel

Defensive Line: Sr. DE Wes Horton, Fr. NT Antwaun Woods, So. DT George Uko, So. DE J.R. Tavai

As has been widely reported, USC just doesn’t have many defensive linemen, period. Veteran Devon Kennard’s season ending injury really hurts USC’s depth, and the only upper classman left on the line, Wes Horton, was injured against Syracuse and didn’t play against Stanford. That left just six linemen that USC felt comfortable sending onto the field in Palo Alto.

Horton was a gametime decision against Stanford and is still listed on USC’s depth chart. Knowing Lane Kiffin, we won’t know his status until the USC defense takes the field on Saturday. Regardless of his healthy, expect to see plenty of Morgan Breslin, who isn't listed as a starter but has nevertheless been the most productive lineman with five tackles for a loss this year.

Despite a lack of depth and experience, USC has managed seven sacks so far this season . . . but five of those came against Hawaii and none came against Stanford. Stanford’s offensive line is almost certainly better than Cal’s, but that’s still a distressing performance for USC fans.

Linebackers: So. Strongside LB Dion Bailey, So. Middle LB Lamar Dawson, So. Weakside LB Hayes Pullard

Pullard and Bailey are the 'veterans' who make the defense go. They're both sophomores, but each have three years in the program and they were 1-2 on the team in tackles last year, so don't get fooled by the 'So.' next to their names.

Bailey is the guy that really scares me. 24 tackles in 3 games, but most frighteningly, 3 interceptions. I can't help but imagine him lurking in coverage, playing soft on a receiver over the middle and reading Maynard's eyes before jumping a route. Word of warning: DON'T WATCH THIS VIDEO. You watched, didn't you. Sorry, but I warned you.

Dawson saw partial time last year and hasn't had a huge impact so far this year. None of the backups have registered much on the stat sheet, likely because Pullard and Bailey don't come off the field often. I get the sense that USC's run defense has been solid more because of the linebacking unit than the defensive line.

Secondary: Jr. CB Nickell Robey; Sr. FS T.J. McDonald; Sr. SS Jawanza Starling; Jr. CB Torin Harris OR So. CB Anthony Brown

McDonald is the most recognizable name, in part because he's following along in the long tradition of USC cheap shot artists. Which isn't to say that he isn't a great player, because he is, though he might be better off going for the ball more often than he goes for the head.

Robey is the #1 corner, while Harris and Brown have been splitting time on the other side. None of them has done a ton yet despite having faced two teams that threw the ball quite a bit. Beyond the starting foursome, look to see back-up safeties Demetrius Wright and Drew McAllister.

2012 performances

264 total yards allowed (3.71 yards/play) in a 49-10 win over Hawaii
455 total yards allowed (5.23 yards/play) in a 42-29 win over Syracuse
417 total yards allowed (6.04 yards/play) in a 21-14 loss to Stanford

The first performance looks solid, but Hawaii has a new coach and a new QB, so it's not quite the same as the June Jones yardage machines of years past. Then Syracuse and Stanford outperformed expectations (and Stanford should have scored more but special teams errors lost them points). Decidedly underwhelming stuff.

Against the Run

2011: 3.62 yards allowed/attempt, 34th in the nation
2012: 3.55 yards allowed/attempt, 50th in the nation

Shutting down Syracuse and Hawaii isn't significantly meaningful, but it’s certainly better than the alternative, but I'm not sure how to grade USC's performance against Stanford's running game. On one hand, USC held Stanford mostly in check, save for one spectacular individual run by Taylor. On the other hand, USC knew that Stanford was going to run as much as they could and Taylor still got his yards and kept drives moving.

And I'm not even sure how much it matters, because what Cal presents is significantly different than what Stanford tries to do. Cal isn’t a true spread offense, but the Bears are a hell of a lot closer than Stanford, which is about as anti-spread as you can get. Cal can barely find 8 healthy linemen, let alone play them all at the same time. So although USC held Taylor somewhat check, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the performance can be extrapolated to Isi, C.J. and Brendan.

Against the Pass

2011: 6.9 yards allowed/attempt, 52nd in the nation
2012: 6.4 yards allowed/attempt, 51st in the nation

Arguably, USC hasn’t really been tested yet through the air. Hawaii’s passing offense can be prolific, but as mentioned above they aren't necessarily the same team they've been in the past. Syracuse is Syracuse. And Josh Nunes is clearly a work in progress, somebody closer to a game manager than anything else.

What I’m saying is that Zach Maynard, Keenan Allen, Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper represent the best collection of passing talent USC has faced so far this year, and it’s not especially close. And Keenan went for 13/160 last year with no real support from the run game.

Stats of Dubious Value

Turnovers

2011: 17 turnovers forced (9 interceptions, 8 fumbles), 95th in the nation
2012: 8 turnovers forced (6 interceptions, 2 fumbles), 8th in the nation.

I don’t need to remind you what happened last year. Turnovers turned a winnable game into an embarrassing debacle. Unfortunately, USC has shown a propensity for forcing turnovers so far this year, and it's what has kept the defense going against Syracuse and Stanford despite giving up plenty of yards.

Cal accounted for 30% of USC's turnovers last year. And people wonder why we're fatalistic about USC.

3rd Down

2011: opponent conversion percentage of 40.12%. 63rd in the nation
2012: opponent conversion percentage of 42.55%, 85th in the nation

Red Zone

2011: Opponents scored in 76.09% of red zone possessions (24th in the nation), scored touchdowns in 60.87% (72nd)
2012: Opponents scored in 87.50% of red zone possessions (93rd in the nation), scored touchdowns in 62.5% (72nd)

It wasn't quite a red zone failure, but Cal had 5 drives enter Ohio St. territory that resulted in zero points. That can't happen again.

Conclusions

Even if USC gets surprisingly healthy between now and Saturday, Cal’s offense should be capable of putting up yards and points. I see no reason to expect that USC’s defense is better than, say, Ohio State’s defense, and Cal moved the ball with relative ease in Columbus.

From the opposite perspective, Cal’s offense just might be the best offense USC has faced so far this year. I’m quite confident Cal is more talented than Hawaii and Syracuse. And while Stanford has an offensive identity that is ultimately effective, without Andrew Luck there’s a ceiling on how good they can be. Stepfan Taylor will get his yards and they’ll complete some nice passes to the tight ends, but it’s not an explosive, quick strike offense. They don’t have a player like Keenan Allen, they don’t have a running back like Brendan Bigelow, and Zach Maynard's QB rating is nearly 20 points higher than Josh Nunes.

In other words, no excuses. There are zero excuses for not scoring points. If Robert Woods goes nuts and Cal loses a shoot-out, fine. But if this team gets held to 17 points or less again . . . I don't know what I'll do. I'm worried it will be something rash. We know this team has talent. We know they're capable of executing. We know that USC's defense has been mediocre for more than a year now. I'm not asking for 45 points - I just want to see enough points that a win is a reasonable prospect. For the love of God, make it happen. 2003 was cool and all, but it's getting harder and harder to look back on it fondly because you can't help but think about how depressingly unique it is.

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