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Roll On: Previewing USC's Defense

There’s lots of angst amongst USC fans over the Trojan defense. That’s not particularly surprising – fans don’t tend to react well when their team allows 40+ points twice in a row, particularly when it’s against teams they’ve grown accustomed to dominating. But it’s created a perception that USC’s defense is downright bad. That may well be true - it's still early in the season and there's not enough evidence to be sure. But as best I can tell from having watched a little USC football, and from taking a look at the stats, USC’s defense is exactly average in every way.

Consider: In four of USC’s five games, the opponent finished within 30 yards of their season average for yards/game. Also consider: In every major defensive category USC ranks somewhere between the low 40s and high 60s.

So really, in just about every way, USC is mediocre. Now, when you compare that to most USC teams of the recent past, that might be cause for teeth-gnashing amongst Trojan fans. But it actually stands as a mild improvement from last year’s sieve, which was the worst USC defense by a stunningly wide margin in a decade.

If the stats are telling the truth, and USC is indeed average, that means Cal should roll up around 425 yards and 27 points. (note: I removed Presbyterian stats from the average for obvious reasons.) That would be 10 more points than Cal has managed against USC since 2003. Would 27 actually be enough to win the game?

Defensive Line: Jr. Wes Horton OR Jr. Devon Kennard, Sr. Christian Tupou, Sr. DaJohn Harris, Jr. Nick Perry

Perry is currently leading the team in sacks and has the most tackles amongst linemen, so his battle on the outside against Mitchell Schwartz will be one to watch. I would like to think that Schwartz is the best tackle he's gone up against so far this year (I mean, he must be better than anything Minnesota, Syracuse or Arizona can throw out there, right?) Neither Kennard or Horton have had a huge impact thus far from the other side of the line. Harris and Tupou have been solid but unspectacular, and only Perry has had consistent success rushing the QB. Losing Armond Armstead to injury hurts USC's depth. 10 sacks in 5 games as a defense seems OK, but most of that production is from the linebackers, and you'd expect USC to have more than that considering their opposition thus far, right?

Linebackers: Fr. Dion Bailey, Sr. Chris Galippo, Fr. Hayes Pullard

Bailey has been a tackling machine as a redshirt freshman, and Pullard and Galippo are both solid as well. This is a unit that really lacks depth. That situation will be helped by the return of Lamar Dawson (h/t Conquest Chronicles):

Dawson's a backup, but he's probably the most valuable backup on this Trojan team. Without him, starter Chris Galippo struggled mightily to keep up with opposing offenses for 80 or 90 snaps a game the last two weeks and the USC defense struggled as a whole as a result.

Dawson is a true freshman returning from injury, so I don't know how big his impact will be. I would love to see Cal wear down USC's suspect depth with a solid run game. A few long, slow, dominant drives to wear down Galipop would be wonderful.

Secondary: So. Nickell Robey, Jr. Jawanza Starling, Jr. T.J. McDonald, Fr. Anthony Brown

Ah, the weak spot. Monte Kiffin is known for playing the Tampa 2 defense, but evidently USC is going with something a bit different (h/t Conquest Chronicles again):

It was apparent Sunday that Kiffin is sensitive to questions about the defensive schemes. He referred to reading "15 articles" that claim USC runs a "Tampa 2" or "Cover 2" defense made famous by father, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin when he worked for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

"We played Cover 2 on four of 72 snaps a couple weeks ago," Lane Kiffin said. "Everyone thinks we play Tampa 2. We rarely do that."

Kiffin said USC actually plays a Cover 3 defense more, which moves safety T.J. McDonald near the line of scrimmage.

"People always say we play Tampa 2," Galippo said. "And we aren't even playing Tampa 2."

If USC is indeed playing a cover 3 primarily, it might explain why Arizona scored 41 points. When you have three players (2 cornerbacks and a free safety) covering deep zones, it's going to generally open up underneath routes - the type of routes Arizona's spread offense live on. I don't know if Cal can take advantage the way Arizona did - Maynard, Allen and Jones seem to be at their best when there's space down the field in the middle. We really need Maynard to rediscover his accuracy on shorter, typically high-percentage throws.

T.J. MacDonald is USC's best secondary player - he has the most tackles and came up with two huge interceptions against Arizona that likely swung the shootout in USC's favor. But the 2nd cornerback has been a problem spot, and as you all know Cal has two pretty good WRs. MacDonald can't guard Jones and Allen, so we really need the other to go off.

Against the run

3.77 yards/carry, 50th in the nation.

For all of their struggles putting inferior teams away, USC had had the lead for the vast majority of their time spent on the field this year and as such they haven’t had teams running the ball much against them. That said, their defensive linemen haven't been racking up tons of tackles for loss and Cal is the best running team USC has faced so far (Only Utah has a halfway decent rushing attack - every other USC opponent has been below average or well-below average). Chances should be there for Sofele and company.

Against the pass

6.9 yards/attempt, 49th in the nation.

USC has been struggling to find the right formula at cornerback, and Cal fans will have to hope that they are at least a week away. The general perception I get is that USC tends to play off of WRs in the hopes of preventing big plays. That strikes me as risky against a player like Keenan Allen, who can really punish a team if he gets the ball with some space to work with. It'll be interesting to see if USC changes up their strategy to take away his chances to run after the catch.

If space underneath is available this would be a great time for Isi or Anthony Miller to bust out with a big game in the receiving game.

Stats of Dubious Predictive Value

A section for a variety of categories that may or may not be statistically significant, but impact games nonetheless. All cited stats are from the 2011 season, which is admittedly a small sample size.

There are a few stats in which USC is decidedly below average. Unfortunately, they are the ‘Stats of dubious predictive value!’


The Trojans have only forced 5 turnovers (2 fumbles and 3 interceptions) in 5 games. I think we can all agree that it’s critical that the trend continues. At least we have reason to hope!

3rd Down

USC has very much struggled to get off the field, allowing opponents to convert 45.6% of their 3rd down attempts.

Red Zone

Are you ready to get excited? USC is LAST IN THE COUNTRY(!!!) in opponent’s touchdown percentage. When teams get inside the 20 they’ve scored touchdowns 82% of the time and points 94% of the time. Resistible force, meet movable object!


There are obvious reasons to be optimistic. USC's defensive line has been mediocre, their best lineman is matched up against the strength of our line, and our line has been steadily improving game by game. Their weakness on defense (the secondary, tackling generally) matches up with our strength (Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen). Isi should have holes, Jones and Allen should be able to get open - what more could you want?

On paper, ignoring the names on the helmet, I'd be cautiously optimistic.

But it's hard to ignore the names on the helmet. Cal hasn't played well against USC generally since 2007 or 2008, and they haven't played well on offense since Aaron Rodgers . . . and still only managed 17 points (ALAMAAAAAR). True, it's Kiffin instead of Carroll, a trade I'll make every day of the week. But until I see our team score points I'll have a hard time believing it's gonna happen enough to earn a win. I do think that Cal will finally break the vaunted 17 point barrier that hasn't been broken since 2003. I don't know if that will be enough to finish with more points when the clock hits 0:00. Here's to hoping!