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Before the raid: Previewing the USC defense

Will Cal be able to move the ball against Mr. Pendergast and his merry band of Trojans?

The crystal ball forecasts . . .
The crystal ball forecasts . . .
Stephen Dunn

Save us, USC. You're our only hope. Either you cease your late season surge immediately and allow Cal a pity victory, or you continue said surge through next week and defeat Stanford. No in between, please.

Oh, who am I kidding? USC is going to beat us and then lose to Stanford, continuing a streak of utter uselessness unbroken since at least 1975.

Oh, that's right, the USC defense. They're really good. Like, 'Hey, don't you guys have sanctions that are supposed to be crippling?' good. Other than 60 minutes of madness in Tempe, they've played lights out. I suppose I could start describing their scheme, but USC's defensive coordinator is a gentleman you're all familiar with. He puts together some great game plans, and he puts together some less great game plans. I would like to propose that Cal installs Kyle Boehm at quarterback and runs the pistol tomorrow. It might be our only chance.


Defensive Line: So. DE Leonard Williams; So. NT Antwaun Woods; Jr. DE George Uko

Washington is arguably the most disruptive defensive end in the conference, and the fact that he's doing than in the 3-4 is saying something. Clancy moved down south and found himself a new Cameron Jordan. Uko and Woods aren't nearly as impactful, but they certainly create space for USC's linebackers to cause havoc.

Linebackers: Jr. OLB Devon Kennard; Jr. MLB Hayes Pullard; So. WLB Anthony Sarao; Jr. OLB J.R. Tavai

The one piece of good news for Cal is that Morgan Breslin is out. He and Devon Kennard have combined for 17 tackles for loss this year, terrorizing teams from around the edge. Still, hybrid DE/OLB J.R. Tavai will start in his place, and he's been very productive for a back-up, so don't expect a particularly noticeable drop off.

Pullard is the tackling machine in the middle, and Sarao is the most likely to be pulled when USC inevitably goes to their nickel package against Cal's 4 wide out sets.

Secondary: Jr. Josh Shaw; Jr. FS Dion Bailey OR Sr. FS Demetrius Wright; Fr. SS Su'a Cravens; So. CB Kevon Seymour

I would guess that Wright will see plenty of field as USC's nickel back. Shaw, Bailey and Cravens all have three interceptions each, and all are fully capable of punishing any poor throws or tipped passes. Bailey is probably the most talented, but all of the starters have been playing at a similarly high level.

Also, seriously, USC might not have a single senior start on this very excellent defense. How is such a thing possible?

This Season

3.2 yards/attempt allowed in a 30-13 win over Hawaii
3.7 yards/attempt allowed in a 10-7 loss to Washington State
3.7 yards/attempt allowed in a 35-7 win over Boston College
4.3 yards/attempt allowed in a 17-14 win over Utah State
8.7 yards/attempt allowed in a 62-41 loss to Arizona State
6.6 yards/attempt allowed in a 38-31 win over Arizona
4.5 yards/attempt allowed in a 14-10 loss to Notre Dame
2.9 yards/attempt allowed in a 19-3 win over Utah
6.0 yards/attempt allowed in a 31-14 win over Oregon State

One of these games is not like the others, one of these games just doesn't belong. What in the world happened to USC in the Tempe desert?

Six times this year, the USC defense has completely strangled their opponent's offense. Twice, the USC defense has held a usually potent offense to a below average performance. Once, they got absolutely torched in every way. That USC has three losses this season says much more about their offense (and Lane Kiffin, sadly departed) than anything else.

The three teams that have had various levels of success moving the ball (Arizona State, Arizona and Oregon State) all did so through the air, although ASU and Arizona had solid complimentary rushing attacks. In the case of Oregon State, their one-dimensional offense still picked up some yards, but also resulted in multiple interceptions. Is that a cautionary tale or an ominous vision of the future?

Against the Run

2013: 3.49 yards allowed/attempt, 25th in the nation

If there's a teeny, tiny vulnerability, it's that USC has been merely OK against the run. They struggled to slow down Arizona State's zone read and gave up yards to Ka'Deem Carey. Of course, pretty much everybody gives up yards to Carey, and Cal doesn't have a mobile quarterback to run the zone read. If this is USC's relative weakness, Cal doesn't appear to have the personnel to exploit it.

Against the Pass

2013: 6.1 yards allowed/attempt, 14th in the nation

Why is USC so good defending the pass? Because they typically have three elite pass rushers on the field at one time. Maybe only two with Breslin out injured, but that should be enough to give Cal trouble. USC has hit the quarterback 50 times in nine games, which is something like once every seven times a quarterback has dropped back to pass against them. Cal's offensive line looked better in pass protection against Arizona, but USC is an order of magnitude better at creating pressure. If the line continues to look good tomorrow, that would be a major, MAJOR positive.

Advanced Stats

S&P STATS, 2013

Total Defense

Standard Downs

Passing Downs

Run Defense

Pass Defense

National Rank






2013 FEI+ total defensive efficiency rank: 3rd in the nation

Well that's just plain terrifying. The standard stats say that USC is good. The advanced stats think that USC has put up those good stats against the 6th toughest schedule of offenses in the nation, which means that the Trojans are elite. I'm a little skeptical that USC's schedule is that tough, but the numbers are the numbers.


Stats of Dubious Value

As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 80-100 offensive snaps tomorrow.


2013: 19 forced turnovers, 33rd in the nation (3 fumbles, 16 interceptions)

Considering how many sacks and quarterback hits USC has, the dearth of forced fumbles (5) is pretty shocking. I look forward to that number regressing to the mean against Cal. Oh, and they pick off a pretty decent number of balls, but you already guessed that.

3rd Down

2013: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 32.33, 17th in the nation

Not great for us.

Red Zone
2013: Opponent scoring percentage of 58.33, 3rd in the nation
2013: Opponent touchdown percentage of 41.67, 3rd in the nation

Oh God. Ohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgodohgod.


It speaks volumes about how badly USC's offense has struggled at times that USC is 6-3. The Trojan defense played nearly perfect games twice and still lost because of the USC offense. This team could easily be 8-1 and ranked in the top 10 or 15.

After that loss to Washington State, after almost losing to Utah State, and especially after that fiasco in Tempe, USC seemed vulnerable. But Pendergast has kept the defense playing at a high level, and Orgeron has taken the shackles off of the offense enough to win games that Kiffin would have lost. Which is bad news for us.

I'm mostly interested in how Cal's young, rebuilt offensive line handles USC's pass rush. In a lost season, interesting battles like that are the type of things to focus on. Because the results for the offense as a whole will likely be painful. Washington State is the most similar team to Cal offensively, both in terms of scheme and probably in terms of potential. They scored 3 offensive points against USC's defense.

That type of futility is on the table as a possibility tomorrow. I think it's possible that Cal moves the ball a little, and I desperately hope to see it happen, but it's also possible that Cal will have their toughest offensive game since the monsoon.