USC Trojans: Clancy Pendergast
1. USC first-team defense
Spearheaded by another strong effort by the front seven, the Trojans' defensive starters completely stymied the Buffaloes. In fact, Colorado’s offense failed to put up any points against USC when the entire first-team defense was on the field. Clancy Pendergast’s group was particularly impressive in the first half, allowing just 30 yards on the ground, while also limiting Sefo Liufau to 43 yards on 4-of-15 passing, a fumble and an interception. Cornerback Josh Shaw also did quite a job on Buffaloes star wide out Paul Richardson, holding him without a catch until midway through the third quarter.
2. Javorius Allen
Allen continued his string of outstanding play, running for a career-best 145 yards to go along with three touchdowns -- despite missing some time in the first half with a shoulder injury. He compiled 112 of his rushing yards in the second half, and the third-year sophomore tailback appeared to grow stronger and more determined following his fumble to open the third quarter. He deserves a ton of praise for the resiliency he showed. His three rushing touchdowns gives him a total of nine in the past four games.
3. Soma Vainuku
Another player who has really come on as of late, Vainuku had arguably his best game as a Trojan on Saturday. Making a name for himself as a special teams demon this fall, the physical fullback blocked a Darragh O’Neill punt in the first quarter, and the ball flew out of the end zone for a USC safety. It was Vainuku’s third blocked punt of the season. But it was on offense where the Eureka (Calif.) native made perhaps his biggest mark against the Buffaloes. Entering the game without a single carry to his credit in 2013, he exploded for 70 yards on 5 rushing attempts, with his 52-yard touchdown jaunt clinching the game for the Trojans.
1. USC first-half rushing offense
Amassing just 37 rushing yards in the first half, the Trojans offensive line struggled early and the USC tailbacks couldn’t do much of anything on the ground against Colorado. That was a surprise considering the Buffaloes entered the game ranked No. 103 in the FBS against the run (210.4 yards allowed per game). To the credit of the USC offensive line, however, they did come back with a much better performance in the second half, opening lanes and allowing Allen and Co. to get rolling. The Trojans finished with a more-than-respectable 243 rushing yards.
2. USC second-half defensive lapse
With the Trojans leading 37-7 late in the third quarter, interim coach Ed Orgeron opted to bring in the reserves, and Colorado's offense really got going for the first time all night. Without a significant push up front by the Trojans, Liufau had plenty of time to throw downfield and the Buffaloes offense put 22 points in the fourth quarter. Cutting the USC lead to 11 points with just over three minutes remaining in the contest, Colorado’s comeback bid ultimately ended when Will Oliver’s onside kick was recovered by Leon McQuay III.
3. USC punting
USC punter Kris Albarado has had some big outings this season, but Saturday's matchup wasn’t one of them. Averaging just 30.2 yards on six punts, he was noticeably off from the start of this game. His 17-yard boot in the fourth quarter was the low point of his night, with Colorado quickly converting the mistake into its final touchdown.
We could try to quantify how much better USC is under Ed Orgeron the past six games compared to Lane Kiffin during the season's first five, but that really is pretty easy. We don't need numbers. We need only three words:
Everything is better.
USC is less sloppy. It's more disciplined. It's protecting the football. USC is playing better offense. It's even playing better defense, if you consider the schedule. It's better on special teams.
Obviously, USC is playing with far more passion. And you can't undersell this: Its players are having way more fun.
"We absolutely love him," USC quarterback Cody Kessler said after the 20-17 win over Stanford. "We'd run through a brick wall for him. He has that look in his eye that you can tell that when he talks to you he really does care. I gave him a hug after the game, and I don't know if he'd want me saying this, but I saw his eyes water up. It's awesome when you play with someone who has that same passion."
How can you dispute or diminish that? You can't.
But the question then becomes: Is that enough to hire him to be the next USC head coach? That is, reportedly, the $6 million question.
When you look at how USC is playing and the Trojans' 5-1 record since Orgeron took over, it's impossible to not give his candidacy legitimacy. Further, that already strong résumé will become measurably stronger if the Trojans win out, which would include a victory over highly ranked rival UCLA, and they would thereby finish the regular season with a 10-3 record and a high national ranking.
At that point, Orgeron would own the locker room and probably have significant momentum with the Trojans' fan base. That would make it difficult for athletic director Pat Haden not to hire him.
The expectation when Orgeron took over for Kiffin after a humiliating 62-41 loss at Arizona State was the Trojans would play better because the season-long hot-seat talk surrounding Kiffin would be over, thereby allowing players to breathe easier and play looser. That improved play, however, wasn't expected to include a 5-1 record and a win over Stanford, ending a four-game losing streak in the series.
In fact, the Pac-12 blog's expectation was the "Hire Coach O!" talk would end with losses to Stanford and UCLA. The Pac-12 blog was wrong, at least so far. Further, when the Pac-12 blog conceived of writing this column about USC's improvement under Orgeron, it expected to, after giving Coach O a tip of the cap, recommend against hiring him, no matter how the now seemingly charmed season ended.
Yet, after further review, there is not enough evidence to overturn the ruling in the stands and the locker room, at least if USC wins out and wins its bowl game.
The only advice the Pac-12 blog has for Haden, though, is this: Don't allow the emotions of the moment to overrule your long-term vision for this coaching hire. A serious evaluation of Orgeron should begin now, if it hasn't already, and there are myriad considerations besides his popularity among the players.
One doesn't have to look far for examples of internal promotions producing great results: Chris Petersen taking over for Dan Hawkins at Boise State, Chip Kelly taking over for Mike Bellotti at Oregon and David Shaw taking over for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford. Although those three programs were already successful, you could make the case that USC's circumstances are similar because, well, it's USC.
The next USC coach isn't rebuilding a program. His job is to maximize the potential of a college football superpower, one that no longer will be yoked with NCAA sanctions after the 2014 recruiting class. Orgeron just might be able to do that.
Of course, we also have precedents that suggest that promoting from within or hiring an interim coach because of his initial success and support of the locker room doesn't always yield long-term success.
Larry Coker took over in Miami after Butch Davis bolted and won a national title in his first season. He went 35-3 his first three seasons, in fact, losing the national title game in Year 2 and winning the Orange Bowl in Year 3. But then things went south and, after a 7-6 season in 2006, he was fired. Coker was a strong short-term answer but not one for the long term.
As interim coach after Rich Rodriguez left for Michigan, Bill Stewart led West Virginia to a stunning upset of No. 3 Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. But after three consecutive 9-4 seasons and an off-the-field controversy, he was pushed aside in favor of his head-coach-in-waiting, Dana Holgorsen.
We know what great college head coaches look like: Urban Meyer and Nick Saban top the list. I'd throw in Bill Snyder at Kansas State. But after them, there are no sure things. Petersen is not a sure thing because he has never been a head coach in an automatic-qualifying conference. Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin has an impressive recent track record, but that track record in an AQ conference is only two years and includes one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football history.
The NFL guys such as Jon Gruden, Jeff Fisher and Jack Del Rio? Not sure things by a long shot.
So the risk of hiring Orgeron isn't that much greater. Sure, he went a dismal 10-25 at Ole Miss, but his thus-far-successful audition running the USC program provides a strong counter to that. He's not only learned from his mistakes; he's also coaching in an environment he knows how to navigate. It's also noteworthy that he's clearly motivated his assistant coaches to care about and focus on their present jobs instead of giving USC 60 percent while the other 40 percent pining about their future employment.
The apparent formula for an Orgeron administration would go like this: He plays the CEO and lets his coaches coach, which means Clay Helton runs the offense, Clancy Pendergast runs the defense and John Baxter runs the special teams. Orgeron leans on his strengths: motivation, chemistry, emotions and recruiting.
The big question would then be whether Orgeron can be consistently and obsessively detail-oriented as all good head coaches are. Can he maintain discipline and run a tight ship? Will he lead a recruiting effort based on insightful evaluation rather than star rating? Can he skillfully handle all the off-the-field responsibilities that head coaches deal with?
My guess is that Haden immediately realized after the Stanford game -- and not before -- that Orgeron deserved at least a raised eyebrow. Haden will be practically forced to make a more thorough evaluation of Orgeron if the Trojans beat UCLA.
"When you have a father figure like Coach O treating us all like sons and putting us under his arm, we want to run through a brick wall for him," linebacker Hayes Pullard said. "One team, one heartbeat, we wanted to carry that over. We wanted to show him that we are with him no matter what."
That's inspiring and meaningful. But there's more to being a head coach than getting your players to run through brick walls.
At this point, however, Orgeron is not only getting his guys to run through those brick walls, he's also getting them to hit the wall in the correct place and use good technique while doing so.
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“After reviewing the film, there were some outstanding efforts by our guys. ... We felt that the penalties hurt us at the end, and put us in a bad position on third down ... too many penalties and too many mistakes put us in crucial situations.
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The players are the same. The schemes/concepts are the same. Uniforms, helmets, etc., all the same. It’s what’s under the helmets -- specifically between the ears -- that might be noticeably different.
That ... and also a new coach. You might recall Lane Kiffin was fired nearly two weeks ago and the Trojans have spent the past 11 days going through a rebirth of sorts. The hope in Troy is that their minds are right for Thursday night's kickoff.
“There is a lot of energy and excitement right now which is a good thing going into the Arizona game,” said USC linebacker Devon Kennard. “When Coach Kiffin first got fired, some guys were really surprised and some guys were sad. After our first meeting, we bounced back and we’re ready to move forward and we’re really buying into what Coach O is doing and the direction he’s trying to take this program. We believe. That’s a good start.”
Coach O, being Ed Orgeron, was named interim head coach following the near-immediate dismissal of Kiffin following the 62-41 loss in Tempe, Ariz. He’s spent the bye week doing everything he can to put the fun back in USC.
“It was a critical week for us to get back to USC football,” Orgeron said. “These guys have been through a lot, so I tried to ease up on them and change a couple of things that were going on in the program. I thought we needed some change and to let the guys know it was going in a different direction. It’s been great. The guys have been walking around and smiling. There is a lot of energy in the room. A lot of energy on the practice field. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, but still focused.”
Then he, Orgeron and the Trojans got down to business.
“Coach O addressed the hard circumstances, but reminded us that the only thing that matters is the men in this room,” Kennard said. “We’ve got to fight the rest of the season. We really have a unique opportunity to turn this season around with a fresh start and a new beginning. That really fired a lot of the guys up.”
So what will the Trojans look like under Orgeron? Probably not too different than the previous Trojans. But Orgeron said there will be subtle tweaks that hopefully will have not-so-subtle results. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will call the plays and Clancy Pendergast will continue to run the defense.
“It’s hard to make wholesale changes in a week,” Orgeron said. “... There is hope. You’ve seen the running game; we’re making strides. Our strength is our running backs. The offensive line is doing a better job. We got out of whack in our passing game and it was not what USC used to be. We went back to some fundamentals. Some things they do really well and some things they aren’t ready to do. We’re making it quarterback-friendly so we can do some things we know we can do to get the ball deep.”
Arizona knows a little something about changing coaches in midseason. It happened to the Wildcats in 2011 when Mike Stoops was let go. The Wildcats came out the following game and beat UCLA 48-12. Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said his team is preparing for an emotionally charged USC squad.
“I would hope we would play normally like ourselves no matter what,” Rodriguez said. “But I did tell the players that this game is going to be more difficult because USC is going to play extremely fired up, loose and come out with a chip on their shoulder. We will get USC’s best shot.”
Kennard and his teammates see the change as an opportunity to move forward and erase the negativity that has plagued the program for the past nine months.
“At this point in the season, coming off the ASU loss, things could be a lot more down around the locker room than they are,” he said. “But because of the change, there is a lot of energy and guys feel like it’s a fresh start and a new opportunity for everyone. In that sense, it gives us a clean slate. Nothing that happened up until this point matters. All that matters is the future.”
- League play is upon us: Rejoice! Now the Pac-12 teams can gut each other with their nine-game conference schedule and lose all of that national credibility it built up in the first four weeks of the season. This year, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, it doesn’t look like there are any easy outs. Would anyone really be shocked if Colorado beat Oregon State based on what we’ve seen? The only one that would be truly shocking would be Cal beating Oregon -- and we might raise an eyebrow if Washington State beats Stanford in Seattle -- especially sans David Yankey for the game and Ed Reynolds for a half.
- Nonconference notes: A good tidbit from the folks at the Pac-12 offices regarding the league’s 29-4 nonconference record: Since 1934, only one season witnessed the conference capture more than 29 wins in nonleague play; 2002 (32-15), when the league played an eight-game conference schedule, allowing an additional 10 non-conference games to be played. There are three nonconference games remaining (a possible fourth pending Colorado’s situation) against Notre Dame. The Pac-12 is contracted with seven bowl games, so there could be as many as 11 more nonconference games.[+] EnlargeKirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsUSC's Morgan Breslin has recorded four sacks this season for the Trojans.
- Battle of elites (1): Two of the league’s top running backs will be on the field in Seattle on Saturday -- though not at the same time. That would mean either a bizarre trade or either Ka’Deem Carey or Bishop Sankey playing defense. In terms of rushing yards per game, they are separated by less than a yard (149.5 for Carey, 148.67 for Sankey). Yards per carry? It’s even closer (6.97 for Sankey, 6.95 for Carey). Both have four rushing touchdowns. While it’s not truly head-to-head, this could be one of those games folks look to when awarding postseason honors.
- Battle of elites (2): Two of the league’s top wide receivers will be on the field in Corvallis on Saturday -- though not at the same time. That would mean a bizarre trade or either Brandin Cooks or Paul Richardson playing defense. Cooks leads the nation with 43 catches for 639 yards and seven touchdowns. In only two games, Richardson has 21 catches for 417 yards and four touchdowns. Sixty percent of the time Cooks catches the ball, Oregon State either gains a first down or scores a touchdown.
- Battle of elites (3): Two of the league’s top defensive players will be on the field in Tempe on Saturday -- though not at the same time. That would mean either a bizarre trade or either Morgan Breslin or Will Sutton playing offense (which would be awesome!). Breslin is tied for the conference lead in total sacks (four) with teammate George Uko and leads the league in tackles for a loss per game. Sutton, on the other hand, has nine tackles, no sacks and half a tackle for a loss. The reason? Teams are double- and triple-teaming him like crazy. Plus, ASU has faced more run-based teams in the first few weeks. This week might be a good time for him to break out.
- Speaking of USC: How good has the defense been? According to ESPN Stats & Information, none of the four quarterbacks USC has seen has posted a Total QBR above 30. The Trojans are also blitzing a lot more under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Last year they blitzed 25 percent of the time. This year it’s up to 46 percent. And when they blitz, opposing QBs are completing just 41.9 percent of their throws, throwing it away or ending up on the ground.
- All hands: With big quarterback numbers come big receiving numbers. Six Pac-12 receivers have hauled in 10 or more catches in a game eight times this season, led by Cooks and Richardson with two each. Also, 17 different receivers have posted 100 or more receiving yards in a game 26 times, led by Cooks and Utah’s Dres Anderson with three games each.
- Layoff impact: Colorado is playing for the first time since its Sept. 7 win over Central Arkansas, which seems like months ago, though it actually has been only 20 days. After their Sept. 14 game with Fresno State was called off because of the flooding, the Buffs had a bye in Week 4. This is Colorado’s first trip to Corvallis. The previous two meetings (1931, 1963) took place in Portland. This is the last Pac-12 team Colorado is yet to play since joining the league (though the Cal game in 2011 was the back end of a home and home that didn’t count in the conference standings).
- Tough road: This is the second-straight game against a top-five team for California, which faces No. 2 Oregon this weekend. The Bears have gotten huge numbers out of true freshman quarterback Jared Goff, who leads the FBS with 435.3 yards per game. But the defense has been hammered with injuries. Not good, considering 12 different Ducks have scored touchdowns so far.
- Odds and ends: Worth noting that four more Pac-12 receivers were recently added to the Biletnikoff watchlist: Cal’s Bryce Treggs, Oregon State’s Richard Mullaney and Washington State’s Gabe Marks, who are all in action this weekend. Utah's Dres Anderson is the fourth UCLA and the Utes are off this week in anticipation of their Thursday night showdown next week in Salt Lake City.
And so "maybe" re-entered the discussion that never seems to abate around Kiffin and USC. "Maybe" might remain a minority opinion, but it's there. If USC beats a dangerous Utah State team on Saturday and then wins at South Division rival Arizona State on Sept. 28 and improves to 4-1, "maybe" will gain traction. The Trojans then might get a nervous scattering of votes in the national polls. They would play host to Arizona on Oct. 10, and the storyline would be what it means in the South race.
A week ago, the Trojans were not only dealing with the aftermath of being repeatedly booed on their own field and the fans at the Coliseum chanting, "Fire Kiffin!" there was a tempest in a teapot about whether receiver Marqise Lee and other team leaders held a players' only meeting. When Kiffin and Lee seemed to be on a different page as far as whether the meeting happened, an official kerfluffle was declared during a week when Kiffin could have done without one.
Yet the performance Saturday suggested the players -- and Kiffin -- were able to block out the negativity and focus on preparation and then playing.
"I think they did a great job keeping the noise out," Kiffin said. "It was a classic week of [after] playing really bad and getting upset at home, all the negativity started swirling around. They did a really good job of blocking that out and practicing extremely hard and extremely well and going out and playing really well."
The key was QB Cody Kessler. While the Trojans defense has been dominant in all three games under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, the offense had stagnated in games one and two, in large part because it couldn't throw the ball. That fell on Kiffin -- he calls the plays -- with the Point A for Kiffin criticism being his handling of the quarterbacks, Kessler and Max Wittek, who played like they were afraid of making mistakes.
Last week, Kiffin decided to name Kessler his starter. Kessler responded by completing 15 of 17 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns against the Eagles. He looked like a different player.
Kiffin attributed that to him getting more practice reps as the designated starter, Kessler's supporting cast playing better around him and his confidence growing as he experienced some early success throwing the ball.
"I felt a very different player by the time we got to the end of the second quarter than had been the first couple of games," Kiffin said. "From a confidence level, he was very comfortable. He was having fun. He was very loose. He really seemed different."
Of course, just as there's now a "maybe" there's also a "maybe not." In fact, the majority of folks are in the "probably not" and "no way" camps. If the Trojans lose to the Aggies, or just look sloppy while winning, the grumbling will begin anew. And a loss at Arizona State could bury the Trojans in the South race before it much begins.
Still, things are much better now than they were a week ago.
"Winning versus losing makes Sundays and Mondays a lot easier," Kiffin said.
That's, at the very least, a potential starting point for turning things around.
Amazing, huh? Well, maybe not.
What happened to Kessler is remarkably similar to what another aspiring, young quarterback went through at USC in 2003. You might have heard of him. His name is Matt Leinart.
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Team of the week: It was inevitable that Washington State's 10-7 win at USC was going to end up being an archly negative referendum on Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, rather than a celebration of the Cougars' advancement, but the Cougs still had to make the plays to win the game. And they did. Washington State hinted at Auburn in the opener that it would be a tougher out in Year 2 under Mike Leach. At USC, the Cougars showed they are capable of winning Pac-12 games.
Best game: The Cougars' win at USC was devoid of offense, but it was the only game of the weekend that presented a lot of drama. Even California's closer-than-expected win over Portland State owned a note of inevitability once the Bears settled down on defense in the second half. In terms of good football, Oregon and Stanford certainly provided that in dominant victories.
Biggest play: Washington State cornerback Damante Horton provided the Cougs with their only touchdown when he returned an interception of a Cody Kessler pass for a 70-yard TD with one minute left before halftime. That tied the score at 7-7 and seemed to irritate Trojans fans in the Coliseum. Go figure.
Defensive standout: Horton not only had his pick-six, he also intercepted USC's other QB, Max Wittek, on the Trojans' final possession. That would be enough for a tip of the cap, but he also had two tackles for a loss and four total tackles. It's worth noting that he helped limit the nation's best receiver, Marqise Lee, to seven catches for 27 yards, though some of that may fall on the guy calling plays for the Trojans.
Defensive standout II: Stanford All-American safety Ed Reynolds had 12 tackles and an interception, leading the Cardinal's dominant defensive effort against David Fales and San Jose State. The Spartans had only 251 total yards in a 34-13 Stanford victory. Trent Murphy's two sacks also are worthy of note.
Special teams standout: New Arizona kicker Jake Smith set a school record with 16 points via kicking in the Wildcats' 58-13 win over UNLV. Smith was 3-for-4 on field goals with a long of 41 yards and he was perfect on seven extra points. Those 16 points broke the previous single-game record for kickers of 15 held previously by three players. In addition, Smith kicked off 11 times, with five touchbacks and a 63.3-yard average. The Rebels mustered only 16.5 yards per return on six tries, and Smith registered one tackle to stop a potential long return.
Smiley face: The Pac-12 took care of business and avoided upsets, going 8-0 in the Week 2 nonconference slate. There were some scares, most notably California and Colorado, but winning is the thing. The conference's top two teams, Oregon and Stanford, both posted dominant wins against respectable foes.
Frowny face: Well, this isn't terribly difficult: USC. Not USC as a whole, because the Trojans turned in a sterling defensive performance against Washington State. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done everything asked of him. Maybe more. But the Trojans' offensive ineptitude against the Cougars is inexcusable. You could make an argument that a purely random selection of play calls would have produced more points and yards than what the Trojans got Saturday as boos rained down in the Coliseum.
Thought of the week: It's measuring stick week, time for the Pac-12 to announce to the country what many started theorizing in the preseason: The Pac-12 this fall is as strong as it has been in recent memory, top to bottom, and should be in the mix when debating the nation's best conference. There are games against three ranked teams: California vs. No. 4 Ohio State, UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska and Arizona State vs. No. 20 Wisconsin. Further, Washington visits Illinois, Colorado plays host to Fresno State, Boston College visits USC and Tennessee is at Oregon. The Pac-12 blog -- and others on the West Coast -- have talked the talk. Now the teams must walk the walk.
Questions for the week: Was Washington State Kiffin's Waterloo? It's not difficult to ascertain what fans at the Coliseum were thinking after the 10-7 loss to Washington State. After booing throughout the game, they chanted "Fire Kiffin" in the fourth quarter. The Pac-12 blog gets no joy from hot seat talk. Being gleefully snarky about a guy struggling at his life's work is pretty lame. But Kiffin is a big boy. Big-time college football is a bottom-line profession -- winning is the thing. And that's even more true at a place such as USC. Things will have to turn around quickly and dramatically, particularly on offense, for Kiffin to retain his job.
Who was your Game One MVP?
Garry Paskwietz: Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. When Pendergast was hired, coach Lane Kiffin mentioned the fact that one of the appealing things about him was how quickly Pendergast turned around the Cal defense in his first year there. Well, it was only one game and it was against an overwhelmed quarterback for the Hawaii Warriors but the Trojans' defense certainly looked to be headed in a different direction from what was seen in 2012. USC was attacking, and multiple guys were making plays. That is a positive step to be taken from the opener.
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Game ball: Clancy Pendergast. The Trojans were hoping for instant improvement on defense with their new coordinator and they certainly got it in this game. The Trojans attacked from every angle to pressure Graham and swarm the Hawaii ballcarriers. The results showed in the stats; four turnovers, seven sacks and limiting the Warriors to 23 rushing yards on 31 attempts.
Stat of the game: The four interceptions by Graham. Hawaii did a good job of keeping USC's offense in check early in the game but the Warriors' offense was unable to capitalize in large part due to the picks. The Trojans scored 18 points off the interceptions, which turned out to be the key difference in the game.
Unsung hero: Dion Bailey. The former linebacker moved back to his high school position of safety in USC's new defensive scheme and the results were productive in the first game. Bailey had a sack on the opening play of the game, added a third-quarter interception deep in USC territory and led the team in tackles.
What USC learned: That there is work to be done on offense, particularly on the offensive line. There was an increased commitment to running the football -- USC ran the ball 45 times -- but if you take away three long runs of more than 20 yards they gained only 112 yards on the remaining 42 carries. The Trojans also converted just three of 14 third-down conversions.
What Hawaii learned: That there is also work to be done for the Warriors on offense. Norm Chow came to Hawaii with a well-deserved reputation as an offensive mind but his defense was the only reason Hawaii was able to keep this game as close as it was. The Warriors were basically even with the Trojans in total plays (USC 74, UH 72) so there was opportunity to do some damage but the offense was limited to a single field goal until a touchdown pass in the final minute.
There is the sense that the USC secondary has improved in fall camp from its unimpressive spring performance, but it’s sometimes difficult to measure growth when the Trojans’ defensive backfield is dissected daily by two future NFL wide receivers in Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor and two pro-bound tight ends in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.
While the USC receiving unit has the ability to make most collegiate secondaries appear hopelessly inadequate, the question remains: Has the Trojans’ secondary matured enough against the passing game in fall camp to transition from a liability to a contributing asset?
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Sometimes things just don’t fit, as was the case when former USC Trojans defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin tried to transition his famed NFL Tampa 2 defense to the college level with mixed success, taking standing eight counts against high-powered spread option attacks such as the Oregon Ducks.
After three seasons, Kiffin finally resigned and returned to the NFL, and now former Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast enters as the Trojans new DC. USC head coach Lane Kiffin is hoping that Pendergast's attacking 3-4 defense will stop the bleeding against the vaunted spread option teams of the Pac-12 and beyond.
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"I think everyone had big goals -- we all had national championship aspirations," said Shaw, a regular contributor for the Gators as a redshirt freshman in 2011. "But that didn't come true. In the middle of the season when we saw that going down the drain, we were like, 'OK, let's just win one game at at time and see where that takes us.'"
While QB Matt Barkley and coach Lane Kiffin took most of the blame, the mediocre play of a talented but underperforming defense can't be overlooked. And it wasn't. Kiffin gently led his father, Monte, a legend among NFL defensive coaches, out the door.
In came Clancy Pendergast, whose 3-4 scheme at California has morphed into a 5-2 for the Trojans. The early returns in spring were strong, and the early returns in preseason camp might be even stronger. Devon Kennard, back after missing 2012 with a torn pec, and Morgan Breslin look like a dynamic pair of outside linebackers, while Leonard Williams and George Uko are an A-list tandem at defensive end.
If fact, the Trojans' entire front seven looks stout, even with some iffy depth. The question is the secondary.
Check that. With Shaw moving from corner and Dion Bailey moving from linebacker to their more natural safety positions, the Trojans have added experience to a position deep with intriguing though young talent.
"I love it in this defense," Shaw said. "You're pretty much a general back there. You have to know what everyone else is doing. You have to be able to cover and come down into the box. You have to do it all."
So safety looks good. Cornerback? It's the big question on defense, and that likely won't completely work itself out until the final days of preseason camp, though the position is hardly bereft of talent.
Of course, the defense looked pretty good on paper last year, too. While looking back -- endlessly -- at 2012 due to media curiosity is not the No. 1 fun thing to do for the Trojans, it is part of the inevitable process of beginning to look ahead. It's about correcting mistakes and avoiding mental and emotional pratfalls that upended a season that began with such promise.
Shaw doesn't point a finger at Monte Kiffin. He points it at the players.
"I don't know if you can pinpoint one thing that went wrong," Shaw said. "Sometimes we just didn't come to play as a defense. Sometimes we had the right call in. You'd go into film and you'd see it was us as players not executing. It was the players more than anything."
That said, Shaw likes Pendergast's new scheme, in large part because it seems more conducive toward countering the diverse offensive schemes in the Pac-12, where one week you play a power offense such as Stanford and then square off with myriad versions of an up-tempo spread.
"The biggest difference is we are able to do so much more," Shaw said. "Last year, we only had a few calls. This year, we have so many different types we can call."
The chief call Shaw and USC wants to make, of course, is one that will silence those still tittering about the 2012 faceplant.
A lot of good players, as it happens every year, won't make the preseason list. It is in their hands to make the postseason list.
You can review our 2012 postseason top 25 here.
19. Morgan Breslin, OLB, USC
2012 numbers: Posted 62 tackles, tied for second in the league in sacks (13) and tied for fifth nationally in sacks per game. He also posted 19.5 tackles for a loss -- which was fourth in the Pac-12. Added four pass deflections, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
2012 postseason ranking: Unranked.
Making the case for Breslin: The Diablo Valley Junior College transfer made a huge impact in 2012, tallying the most sacks and tackles for a loss at USC since Kenechi Udeze in 2003. He was the school's defensive lineman of the year and was a second-team all-league selection and an All-America honorable mention by several publications. We're expecting him to be even better in 2013. With the Trojans shifting to an odd front (52 or 34, depending on who you ask on what day) under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast, Breslin's pass-rushing skills should only be accentuated as he moves to outside linebacker. In this new hybrid role, the 6-2, 250-pounder will be asked to do more in coverage. But it should also open up more opportunities to crash the backfield. In a league loaded with premier pass-rushers, Breslin should be considered one of the best in the conference.
20. Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon
21. Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
22. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
23. Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
24. Marion Grice, RB, Arizona State
25. Ben Gardner, DE, Stanford