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USC football roundtable: Trojans defense, the rest of their Pac-12 schedule and Lane Kiffin

We polled our writers and examined both USC's offense and defense, as well as the remaining games on the Trojans' conference slate and how it could affect Lane Kiffin.


USC's defense is really really good and their offense is really really bad. What are your main theories as to why this imbalance came into being?

Luke Holthouse, Conquest Chronicles: While I think most would point to the men calling plays for the respective units, Lane Kiffin on the offense and Clancy Pendergast on the defense, I think the dichotomy of USC football this year has more to do with personnel meshing together, particularly at the line of scrimmage. The defensive line has really clicked with the new 5-2 set because several of the guys like Devon Kennard or Morgan Breslin are hybrid defenders somewhere between outside linebackers and defensive ends. The new set really helped the two maximize their potential and utilizes the versatility of the unit perfectly against no-huddle spread offenses that don't allow much time for defensive substitutions.

On the other side of the ball, the offensive line spent most of the summer adjusting to new positions. The group only lost one starter, Khaled Holmes, to the NFL but almost the entire returning group experimented with blocking in different spots on the line over the summer. Holmes started at center with John Martinez and Kevin Graf on his right then with Marcus Martin and Aundrey Walker on his left. Freshman Chad Wheeler took Walker's spot at left tackle, Walker took Martinez's spot at right guard, Martin moved over to Holmes' old spot at center, Max Tuerk got the starting spot in Martin's place at left guard and Graf held down his spot at right guard. Very confusing, and the line is ranked 103rd in the country for sacks allowed. Give the O-line a little more time to gel and I think the Trojans will really start playing from both sides.

Michael Luca, Conquest Chronicles: Let's excuse the quarterback position for a hot second. You'd imagine that USC would struggle more with their recruiting throughout these scholarship-limiting sanctions (which, as of now, have not yet been rescinded by the NCAA), but their roster on paper suggests that they still possess bottomless talent on both sides of the football.

The difference remains the game plan on each side: a focused, shape-shifting, and stubbornly relentless 5-2 scheme that Clancy Pendergast has established without having to force-feed it to his players, versus the broken record that is Lane Kiffin's bubble screens, lack of balance, and inability to make decisions until two weeks in. That sounds like a bank managed by a baby...or a bank.

Speaking of that indecision, perhaps Cody Kessler or Max Wittek would've been further along in the eyes of the coaching staff had said coaches started accelerating their development as early as when Matt Barkley opted to return last season. As up-and-down as he turned out to be, how many other programs were as ill-prepared in shouldering such an injury as the Trojans were? Maybe if we stopped blowing bubbles on the sidelines...

Nick Selbe, Conquest Chronicles: I think the defense has succeeded mostly because of the play of the defensive line. Morgan Breslin, Leonard Williams, George Uko and Devon Kennard are probably the best quartet in the Pac-12, if not the country. They excel at putting pressure on QBs, which will make them even more effective in conference play, with the Pac-12 being so pass heavy. The pressure they put on QBs has bailed out the secondary, specifically the cornerbacks, who have been shaky at best.

I think the main reason the offense has struggled has been inconsistency in the passing game. Tre Madden and Justin Davis have both ran the ball very effectively, but, save for the BC game, the passing game has, for whatever reason, never found a rhythm. Kessler is an accurate passer with a much stronger arm than people give him credit for, so the potential is there, given the talented pass-catchers USC has, for the Trojans to become lethal through the air. To me, it's only a matter of time before things start to click.

Trevor Wong, Conquest Chronicles: On defense, it all starts with the line. Clancy Pendergast's unit ranks first in the nation in tackles for loss, second in sacks and third in rushing defense. In other words, they're completely dominating up front. Morgan Breslin, Devon Kennard, George Uko and Leonard Williams are all wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks and in the backfield. On offense, it's because of the lack of continuity, whether that be with the starting quarterback trying to get on the same page as the receivers, or the offensive line trying to find a cohesiveness as a unit.

The Trojans have a lot of formidable opponents ahead in their schedule but avoid Oregon and Washington. Could the schedule save Lane Kiffin?

Luke Holthouse, Conquest Chronicles: Absolutely. A trip to the PAC-12 title game ensures Kiffin stays in my opinion, and I think that requires SC winning out in conference besides Stanford. If Trojans beat ASU and UCLA and we assume no other big upsets (big if), my guess is that UCLA and ASU will both also have at least two losses and USC would have head-to-head tie breaker. But both of those games are going to be very tough for Kiffin to pull out, as will rest of conference schedule.

Michael Luca, Conquest Chronicles: Of their three remaining ranked opponents, two of them (Stanford and UCLA) visit the Coliseum, and Notre Dame doesn't propose the same sheen as their 2012 undefeated title run. Therefore, no, the season is not over in late September. Next week's lesson: sharing incidentally is caring.

If the ultimate goal is, at the very least, to win the Pac-12 South en route to a potential BCS Bowl bid, then a result-oriented Pat Haden may have amnesia towards this month if Kiffin rights the ship now (and not if he backs into it thanks to inadequate competition or a la Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, and the 2011 Boo-huins). Then again, the damage might already be irreversibly done.

Nick Selbe, Conquest Chronicles: Missing Oregon and Washington is starting to look like a godsend. Both of those teams look like they have the potential for special seasons. Of course, USC has already lost to one of those team's alternatives (WSU), so that's a huge missed opportunity to take advantage of the fortunate schedule. But USC still gets to miss Oregon, and after watching Oregon State's defense get shredded this season, the Beavers definitely look beatable, even in Corvallis.

Trevor Wong, Conquest Chronicles: The remaining schedule could save Lane Kiffin, but I also figured this USC squad would be 4-0 right now, not an unimpressive 3-1. Although they avoid Oregon, they do have to travel to Oregon State, where the Trojans typically don't fare too well (see losses in '06 and '08). The defense will likely keep USC in a lot of games, but unless the offense comes around and scores consistently, I don't foresee anything better than an 8-5 season.