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Thursday Night Showdown: USC defensive preview

Clancy Pendergast hosts his former team down in the lesser half of California tomorrow night.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Oh Clancy, how I miss thee. Can you imagine taking the Cal defense from 2010 through 2012 and pairing it with a Dykes/Spavital offense? Goodness, Cal might actually have the best team in the conference. Alas, dreamland will have to wait as Clancy is with the Trojans hoping to take down his former team this Thursday night.

The Bears head down to LA to take on the despised men of Troy which presents a brutal matchup for Cal. Particularly due to the short week and extra rest, Cal arrives in a less than favorable position hoping to put on yet another show in front of a national audience.

The Trojan defense has been much better of late, surrendering no more than 20 points over their last three Pac-12 games. While that statistic can be slightly misleading given Arizona looks like a total disaster, Colorado and Arizona State both have the ability to put up major offensive statistics against any team. If you were to extrapolate USC’s defensive performance in their last three games over the current 2016 season, they would rank in the top ten nationally in points allowed per game. Ultimately, this is a team playing with a lot of confidence and they face a Cal team that hasn’t beat them in over a decade.

Let’s take a deeper look at the defensive units for USC.

Defensive Line

For most Cal fans, you knew what you were getting with a Pendergast led USC defense: incredible defensive talent with a coordinator who has a propensity for applying pressure on opposing teams offenses. That formula was a massive success previously in 2013 when Clancy joined Lane Kiffin’s staff. While this years defense hasn’t produced to the same extent the 2013 defense did, they still have the ability to be very successful.

The defensive line is the one area of perhaps weakness for the Trojans this year. USC dealt with four departures from their line and while they certainly have the talent to backfill with, the unit is a bit more inexperienced than some of their others. One of the bigger playmakers to watch out for is rush end Porter Gustin. He is off to an excellent season thus far, representing the second most tackles on the team during the first half of the year. He also has quite the pedigree as a five star recruit and is only a sophomore.

While Cal won’t have the same size advantage it had when playing the likes of Oregon, Oregon State and perhaps even Utah, the Bears may be able to find success on the ground. USC gives up 164.4 rushing yards per game and while that isn’t nearly as bad as the last two teams the Bears faced, Cal has had success against teams who defensively fared a bit better.


The linebackers set the tone of the entire defense for the Trojans. Unsurprisingly, Cameron Smith and Michael Hutchings are first and third on the team in tackles half way through Pac-12 play. Clancy runs a 5-2 defense which generally means five players on the line, three lineman and two linebackers that line up on the outside. This gives the linebackers a tremendous amount of responsibility in generating havoc and creating the signature pressure that Clancy features across most of his defenses.

Here is an example of a look you should expect to see a lot of come Thursday evening:

It’s not hard to think back to the days when Cal had the athletic playmakers at linebacker (Mychal Kendricks) and bigger bodies up front (Cameron Jordan) to make this scheme successful. The issue for Cal is that USC has that type of talent and more. Therefore, the Trojan linebackers end up making a lot of plays behind the line and can put pressure on the quarterback without sacrificing too much of their ability to defend the run.


Speaking of talent, the Trojan secondary is absolutely loaded with young star players.

SB Nation

Iman Marshall, who is tied for the team lead in interceptions, is only a sophomore. Adoree Jackson (who plays on both sides of the ball) is only a junior. Jackson leads the team in forced fumbles, passes defended and is tied for the team lead in interceptions while also returning kicks. It is hard to imagine any worse matchup for the Bears than Jackson as he performs extremely well in many positions that usually haunt Dykes teams.

If you look back at the games that the Cal offense struggled often in, it generally had to do with either a safety or corner locking up Chad Hansen to force Cal to spread the ball around. Given that Hansen might not play Thursday, the Bears will be in dire need of Melquise Stovall or even Vic Wharton to step up offensively (assuming that Robertson sees a lot of time from both Marshall and Jackson). Without one of those receivers forcing USC to defend the pass underneath, Davis Webb may have a hard time moving the ball downfield.

Final Take

This matchup has nightmare written all over it, Sonny Dykes nearly said as much in his presser just after beating Oregon. Cal comes in after two overtime games and a short week against a USC team coming off a bye week. The Trojans are riding a three game win streak and Cal is riding a losing streak too long to remember so we usually just talk about the near victory in 2004. The Bears will have to hope Khalfani Muhammed or Tre Watson have enough energy after last week to pace the Cal offense. The best news for the Bears is that Davis Webb is one of the better quarterbacks in college football against the blitz and he could take advantage of an opportunistic Clancy Pendergast led defense.