Utah State football: USC defense poses big test for Aggies
Los Angeles • The problem with USC's defense, Utah State's players and coaches say, is that there isn't just one player to take out of the equation.
When the Trojans blitz, any one of their defenders can beat their man and take down the quarterback. If it's not defensive ends George Uko or Leonard Williams muscling past guards, linebackers Morgan Breslin and Devon Kennard can finesse their way into the backfield - the result is the same.
This dilemma has left the Aggies racking their brains for answers as they prepare to meet the Trojans Saturday (1:30 p.m.) at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
"They just have size and athleticism, that's the big thing for us," senior tackle Eric Schultz said. "Everyone's going to have to bring their A-game."
Although the Trojans fan base has loudly expressed its dissatisfaction with coach Lane Kiffin this season, it has had little to do with how the Trojan defense is performing. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast jettisoned USC's traditional 4-3 scheme in favor of a 3-4 variation, which he calls the 52 defense. It puts five men on the line of scrimmage, often forcing the offensive line into one-on-one match-ups against each defender.
Since it's tough to win every matchup against the Trojans, even a crack or small mistake can break down protection or end a run before it starts.
This has lead to an impressive level of domination. USC is second nationally in run defense (43.7 yards per game), third in sacks (12), and fourth in total defense (212.3 ypg). Hawaii was only able to score a touchdown in the last 30 seconds. Washington State's offense, led by passing guru Mike Leach, couldn't score a touchdown at all the Cougar defense came up with a pick-6 to help get the win.
USU coaches say that there is no available film of USC playing goal line defense three games in it just hasn't happened yet.
"They've got some really good front seven guys," running backs coach Dave Ungerer said. "Their D-line guys are exceptional, and their linebackers run downhill fast. It's going to be a challenge to move it on the ground."
Utah State comes in with one of the nation's top scoring offenses (No. 8) and ranks fourth in both first downs and third down conversions.
Something's got to give.
One of the top priorities will be to protect Chuckie Keeton. The junior quarterback is top-10 nationally in passing touchdown, total yards, completions and passing efficiency, but it won't count for much if USC's pass rush can get to him before he can make a throw. It's as critical as ever for running backs and tight ends to help on blocks and give Keeton a little extra time to make plays.
"We'll have more of a chip-block game going, just to help out the tackles if the edge rusher is coming too fast," running back Joey DeMartino said. "The first thing is to always keep Chuckie safe. That's our main guy."
It's hard to describe Boston College's 35-7 loss to the Trojans as a "success," but the Eagles did manage to get more than 100 yards on the ground last week while only allowing one sack. It offers some hope that there are answers to the scheme, that USC's iron curtain may have a few flaws.
Utah State wants to be the team to find them.
"It's going to be tough, but it's going to be a great challenge for us," running back Joe Hill said. "We're going to have to put up some major yards on them."
Utah State at USC
O Kickoff • Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
TV • ABC/ESPN2
Radio • 1280 AM The Zone
Records • Utah State (2-1, 1-0), USC (2-1)
Series history • USC leads, 4-0
Last meeting • Sept. 16, 1989; USC 66, USU 10
About the Aggies • Utah State is playing its first game on ABC since a 1978 contest against BYU. â¦ The Aggies offense, No. 13 in total offense, has eclipsed 500 yards of offense twice this year, the exception being against Utah when it had 487 yards. â¦ Quarterback Chuckie Keeton enters the week tied for most passing touchdowns (12) in the country, tied with Oregon State's Sean Mannion.
About the Trojans • USC's top receiver is Marqise Lee, who was an All-American and won the Biletnikoff Award last season. â¦ The Trojans defense have allowed only 43.7 rushing yards per game, good for No. 2 in the country. â¦ Running back Tre Madden is the first back at USC to have three straight 100-yard rushing games to open a season since Marcus Allen did it in his 1981 Heisman-winning season.