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The Powerful USC Trojan Defense: What We Learned from the Win Over Cal

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In an uninspired offensive performance, USC relied on their defense to remain undefeated

USC v California Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

These Trojans have created quite the season to follow.

In August, foresight had USC being an absolute offensive juggernaut led by clear-cut Heisman candidate Sam Darnold—all the while shattering scoring records to compensate for what was going to be an average (or slightly better) defense at best.

Yet here we are five weeks into the college football season and the Trojan defense is what has gained this team notoriety. The pressure applied by the front-seven and swarming nature of the secondary have not made it easy for any offense playing the Trojans.

As far for the offense?

I’d argue runningbacks Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr are ahead in Heisman conversations in place of Darnold—given the success of the offense has been laid squarely on the success of the backfield.

Not yet jumping into “What We Learned?” from the offensive side, let’s give credit where it is most rightfully due; here’s what we learned from the defense.

The Defense Steps Up in Crunch Time!

NCAA Football: Southern California at California
“Mama there goes than man!”
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

The five turnovers USC forced against Cal were the most turnovers the team has had in five years—equally as impressive is the fact the Trojans forced three interceptions in three consecutive drives to begin the fourth quarter.

In my “Keys to the Game” article last week, I emphasized that the secondary needed to create more turnover opportunities. This came to fruition with sophomore Jack Jones nabbing two interceptions and sophomore safety Ykili Ross getting his first interception as a Trojan.

However, these turnovers were created by the overwhelming pressure generated off the edge as the game went on.

Edge defenders Christian “Wreck” (...let’s get that to stick) Rector and Uchenna Nwosu were relentless all game long. A truly unsung hero of this defense, Rector had two sacks in this game and now leads the team in sacks with 4.5 and is also the team leader in forced fumbles with two —and he’s only played in three games.

The imposing 6”4”-275 lbs. defensive lineman has been a revelation this season after redshirting his freshman year in 2015 and not registering a sack last season in his limited playing time.

Here we see Rector(#89) blow past the LT for the sack and forced fumble, something we’ve seen from him all season thus far.

Causing havoc alongside Rector was outside linebacker Nwosu.

Nwosu was once again active off the edge, finishing the game with four tackles, and of course another deflected pass and one quarterback hurry. In what originally ruled an interception by Nwosu was called a fumble recovery with the pressure applied by defensive lineman Josh Fatu.

The amount of athleticism and talent on this defense is mouthwatering, and they’ve improved every week. With a healthy Porter Gustin expected to return against #16 Washington State Friday night, we should see the defense take another leap forward. In what seems to be the biggest takeaway from this game, the Trojans are a defensive team and will go as far as this defense takes them.

Now onto the offense…

Sam Darnold is NOT a Heisman contender

NCAA Football: Southern California at California
“This is where I’ll force terrible passes, it’ll drive everyone crazy!”
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

There it is.

For those of you following me all season-long, you’ll know I’ve been critical of Darnold. We’ve argued that the receivers made too many drops in the past and his consistent 2:2 TD-INT ratio games weren’t terrible.

But did you watch this game?!

Darnold trying too hard to make something happen—just throw it away

One thing was definitive in watching Darnold, he forced too many “Heisman-moment” throws. Locking in on Deontay Burnett, he forced the ball his way too many times and was fortunate he only ended his day with one interception.

What made this even more maddening was the evident success of the play-action rollouts to tight ends and receivers running shallow routes. This should be how USC moves the ball through the air—play actions to short and intermediate routes. The level of success USC has running the ball has yet to translate into the passing game.

That needs to stop. Certainly wide receivers not named Burnett still desperately need to step up, that has not changed. What has changed though is Darnold locking in on Burnett and forcing passes into coverages he knows he should not. It is also difficult to ask wide receivers to step up when you no longer throw to them. Certainly this unit has given Darnold good reason to avoid throwing their way but outside of Burnett and Carr, Darnold did not even really attempt to throw their way. Out of 38 passing attempts Jalen Greene was targeted twice; Tyler Vaughns was targeted 4 times, Tyler Petite had about 6 targets, Stephen Carr had 6 targets, Krommenhoek had 1 target as did Ware, and Pola Mao. Compare that with the roughly 13 or 14 times Burnett was targeted despite blanket coverage. In other words about 1 out of every 3 throws went to Burnett. And over half of all throws went to Burnett or Carr on Saturday.

USC Needs RoJo

NCAA Football: Southern California at California
Carr(#7) had a solid starting debut, but it was evident he needed someone to handle the carries with
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

In true freshman Stephen Carr’s first start as a Trojan, he amassed 82 yards on 20 carries (4.1 YPC) and one touchdown as well as six receptions for 47 yards—both receptions and yards were only second to Burnett in the game.

Carr ran hard and fought for everything he got, a solid start to what will be a prolific three years. However, with the poor state of the passing game, he cannot do it alone.

With Ronald Jones II handling the bulk of the carries, Carr ‘s receiving ability becomes tantamount to Darnold’s success and his home run ability late in games against tired defenses increases with Jones as the primary back.

Carr will undoubtedly be the top-dog next season, but for now—this team needs the devastating combination of Ronald Jones II and Stephen Carr.