While the Trojans are entering the last two weeks of the season, USC is finally back in the driver's seat they had previously given up. The Trojans have crept back into the AP top 25 sitting at no.22 and are now controlling their own destiny in the Pac-12 South. With UCLA and Utah both losing Saturday, the Trojans now have to win out and finish first in the rankings. This accomplishment seems simple given that Helton and company are 4-1 since he has taken over, but this week will determine more than the Trojans future. USC will have to go into Eugene, Oregon and the rest of this season missing two key components on defense.
How do you replace true freshman Cameron Smith and senior Lamar Dawson?
Better yet how do you replace 109 tackles, three interceptions, and a forced fumble? This is a question USC's defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox has been presented with. Cameron Smith was a potential freshman All-American who had taken the reigns from Hayes Pullard quite well. Cameron Smith will be out for the rest of the year due to a torn ligament in his knee he suffered against Colorado on Friday. Smith started nine of ten games this year and finished with 78 tackles and three interceptions. Smith exemplified leadership and hard work as he led the team in tackles, turnovers, and progress throughout the year.
Backing up Smith was senior inside linebacker Lamar Dawson, who started one game but played excessively throughout the year. Dawson was the third down backer, specializing in coverage and having the ability to play better in passing downs. Dawson was coming off of a knee injury that hindered him for most of his career, but wasted no time getting his motor started this year. Dawson finished his senior campaign with 31 tackles and a forced fumble before being sidelined with a season-ending shoulder surgery. Dawson's perseverance and leadership will also be missed on the field, which is much needed for a USC defense beginning to identify with themselves. Missing these two on defense will disrupt a four-man rotation, but will force guys to step up.
USC will insert sophomore Olajuwon Tucker and junior Michael Hutchings. The starter has not been determined but for the remainder of the season these two will have to dig deep and be ready to take more reps. Tucker and Hutchings combine for 14 tackles being special team contributors for the year.
Expect Oregon to attack these two this week and try to put them in many one on one situations as they have not been factors in this year's defense. USC will be matched up against two offenses that have shown explosiveness and an effective run game. Oregon is averaging 297 rushing yards a game, while the Bruins are averaging 200 yards. If Hutchings or Tucker can step up against an explosive offense this week, the Trojans can very well find themselves tackling another obstacle this season.