There are three things you can count on in life; death, taxes, and any team coached by Mike Leach to throw the football. Much like every week last season, one of the main areas of focus for USC going into the game against Washington State is the secondary. Dealing with injuries to both starting corners against Hawaii and facing quarterback Taylor Graham, who we'll simply say didn't show particularly well, the Trojan secondary had an up and down day. While the defense did manage to record four interceptions against Hawaii there were multiple breakdowns on deep throws that had Trojan fans feeling lucky their team wasn't facing a more accurate quarterback.
In steps Connor Halliday, the man piloting the Washington State aerial attack. Against Auburn last week Halliday threw the ball 65 times (65!). Halliday completed 35 of those passes for over 340 yards but was intercepted three times in the process. Before we start chanting S-E-C and talk ourselves into 340 yards against Auburn being a Johnny Football-esque performance, it bears remembering Auburn hasn't been good since Cam Newton's dad stopped depositing checks from the athletic department. Regardless of success, or lack thereof, its undeniable that Washington State will be throwing the ball all over the field Saturday night; which places this game directly in the hands of a revamped USC secondary full of freshman and position changes.
To examine the matchup between the Trojan secondary and the Washington State passing game, we have to look at numbers going back to last year as the one game each team has played this season is far too small a sample size to draw definitive conclusions (note: while teams change year to year unless, there is significant personnel/coaching upheaval it is likely a team will look statistically similar year to year). When we look at last season's numbers it becomes even clearer that Halliday's performance against Auburn shouldn't be striking fear into Trojan fans. Last season Auburn ranked 99th in the country in pass efficiency defense, while Washington State ranked ninth in overall passing offense. We can see this was the classic matchup of one team's "strength" matching up against another squad's weakness and exploiting it.
The matchup in the Trojan opener was the opposite of the example above. Last season Hawaii (a team that has aired it out like few others over the years) only managed to rank 98th in passing offense while a much-maligned USC pass defense ranked an almost respectable 41st in pass efficiency defense. All signs point to this iteration of Trojan defense being closer to the Rey Maualuga glory years than to what we saw against Arizona last season. This is to say in the season opener the USC defense did what they were expected to do and did it with an efficiency that is nothing but encouraging. The Clancy Pendergast directed Trojan defense ranks sixth in the nation in pass efficiency defense (obligatory "small sample size alert!) While I'm the first to say you can't draw definitive conclusions from one game, it is an encouraging sign that the USC secondary had a better day than many highly regarded defenses that matched up against D-II opponents. Having said all that, the most important factor in how the Trojan secondary defends the pass this week will be the push generated by the five men up front on the line.
Through one week Coach Pendergast's defense has done exactly what it is meant to: get to the quarterback in a variety of ways. The seven sacks the team recorded in Week One leads the nation. I don't even feel the need to add a small sample size alert to that statistic as last season USC recorded 45 sacks, which was good for fifth in the nation. While Auburn only managed to record two sacks against Washington State last week, the Cougars ranked 120th in the nation last year in sacks allowed. How many D-I teams are there, you ask? You guessed it, 120.
So putting it all together what can we expect out of the Trojan defense this week, specifically against the Cougars aerial attack? We know Halliday will be dropping back to pass all game long. We also know history tells us the Washington State line has no ability to protect its quarterback when he does so.
That being said, we saw an aggressive, opportunistic USC secondary taking chances on throws they wouldn't have in the past under Monte Kiffin. While Su'aCravens, Dion Bailey, rising star Josh Shaw and the rest of the secondary should have their chances to make big plays, Halliday certainly won't be throwing the ball 65 times Saturday night; if he does we should probably conduct an investigation into what he ever did wrong to Mike Leach. You combine last year's worst pass protecting offensive line with what should be the nation's best pass rushing defensive line this season, a line that is getting last year's leading rusher Morgan Breslin back from injury this week, and I would tell Mr. Halliday any botany classes he's taking are no longer necessary as he'll have an intimate knowledge of grass after this Saturday.