The dominating performances put on by the USC defense through the first three weeks of the season have been the undeniable highlight so far for a Trojans team that currently sits at 2-1 and looks to be headed in the right direction after an impressive 35-7 bounce-back victory against Boston College last weekend.
With Hayes Pullard, a team captain with 28 starts and 201 career tackles to his credit, serving as the leader at middle linebacker, the entire unit has taken off in their first year playing in new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s aggressive 5-2 scheme.
A fast and swarming bunch, the first-team Trojans defense has yet to give up a touchdown in 2013 and currently ranks in the top 10 nationally in a slew of categories, including No. 2 in rushing defense (allowing 43.7 yards per game), No. 3 in sacks (four per game), No. 6 in passes intercepted (six) and No. 4 in total defense (allowing 212.3 yards per game).
“I give all the credit to Coach Pendergast, coach [Ed] Orgeron and coach [Mike] Ekeler,” said the 6-foot-1 and 230-pound Pullard, who has compiled 13 tackles in 2013. “They put us in the position to be able to play fast. I’m enjoying it so much. It’s spread around where people are making plays on the perimeter, in the middle, we’re forcing turnovers. ... It’s just a fun atmosphere when we’re out there. Everybody is just focused on doing their assignments and doing everything they can to achieve our goal -- to be a dominant defense.”
And so far at least, it's mission accomplished. But neither Pullard nor his teammates have yet to face an offense this season that resembles anything close to what Utah State (2-1) will bring to the Coliseum this Saturday. The Aggies average a whopping 49.3 points and 550.3 total yards per game, and it’s their dual-threat Heisman candidate at quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who engineers it all. Running USU’s spread offense to perfection this season, the 6-2, 200-pound junior has completed 78.1 percent of his passes for 923 yards and 12 touchdowns with just one interception, while also leading the team with 187 rushing yards.
“I guess the closest thing would be Oregon as far as how they can hurt you in all aspects,” said USC head coach Lane Kiffin earlier this week when asked if there is another team that showcases an offense similar to Utah State’s. “They run the ball really well, [Keeton] throws the ball really well, and then he takes off and runs it. So, I guess that would be the closest. ... It’s a little bit of a different style, but at the same time they’re really explosive, and they have really good players around him, too. ... Good receivers [and] a very veteran offensive line that returns five starters. This is a top-25 team.”
And Kiffin isn’t alone in his line of thinking, particularly when it comes to Keeton, who led the Aggies to a breakthrough 11-2 record in 2012.
“Oh my gosh, watching him on film, he’s a great player,” Pullard said. “He can pass, he loves to run [and] he loves to attack defenses. I can’t say anything bad about him.”
But if there is a defense out there that appears to have the potential to contain Keeton -- which according to Pullard, is all you can hope to do -- it just might be USC. After all, on top of the talent the Trojans have, Pendergast has made a name for himself as an architect of defenses that are geared to shut down uptempo, spread attacks.
And while it remains to be seen exactly how the USC defense does, in fact, plan to slow Keeton and the rest of the Utah State offense down, so long as Pullard and his teammates perform at the same high level that they have all season long up to this point, while also staying disciplined and following the game plan put in place by Pendergast, there’s little reason to doubt that they’ll be more than up for the challenge.
“We talked about it on Monday, and everybody is taking the initiative, and everybody is being accountable for themselves,” Pullard said. “It’s just about being responsible for your duty when you’re out there and making sure that you do your assignment, and then we’ll go from there.”