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Previewing the USC Defense

NCAA Football: Utah at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

It has been an interesting year, to say the least, at USC. It began with defensive players Don Hill and Utah native Osa Masina being accused and then charged with sexual assault. Both have been removed from USC’s official roster as a result. In just the past week, off the field issues have continued with quarterback controversy, transfers, and rumors of unrest swirling. Needless to say, the Trojans are a hot mess coming to Salt Lake City on Friday night. USC has a 1-2 record and are desperate for a win. Utah will look to capitalize on the distractions USC is facing, and hand the Trojans their third loss of the year. It won’t be easy as USC still has arguably the most talented roster in the Pac-12. Today we’ll preview the defense for USC and how Utah matches up.

Clancy Pendergast returned to USC as defensive coordinator this year after spending two seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. This is Pendergast’s third stop at USC. He served as a graduate assistant back in 1992 and defensive coordinator in 2013.

Pendergast has a good track record, leading USC to the #1 defense in the Pac-12 in 2013 and #13 nationally. So far this season things have not gone as well, USC ranks 7th in the Pac-12 in total defense and 65th nationally. Opening the season with Alabama and Stanford in two of your first three games probably doesn’t help.

The USC base defense is a form of the 5-2 defense, in that five players line up along the line of scrimmage. Unlike a traditional 5-2, there are still only three true defensive lineman, similar to a 3-4. What makes it a 5-2, is the outside linebackers act as defensive ends, lining up in an upright position, but still on the line of scrimmage. The scheme is based on pressuring the opposing quarterback and is fairly easy for players to pick up, leading to early success after installation.

On the defensive line, Utah native and former Ute, Stevie Tu’ikolovatu is the nose tackle and controls the line of scrimmage for the Trojans defense. Eating up space and holding the point of attack is his main job and he’s done well this season for the Trojans. Flanking him on either side are sophomore lineman Noah Jefferson and Malik Dorton. At outside linebacker/defensive end is another Utah connection in sophomore Porter Gustin. The Utah native has done well in his second collegiate season, with the second most tackles on the team (19) and leads the team in sacks (2). Joining Gustin as the other end is junior Uchenna Nwosu.

Senior Michael Hutchings and Cameron Smith are the inside linebackers that line up off the line of scrimmage. Smith should be a familiar name to Utah fans, as he intercepted three passes in last year’s game, returning one for a touchdown. He was a relatively unknown freshman to begin that game and has since emerged as one of the Trojans best defensive players, leading the team in tackles with 28. Hutchings is third on the team with 17 tackles and has 1.5 sacks.

Adoree Jackson is the star of the secondary at cornerback and is a dangerous playmaker in all three phases of the game. He has one of the Trojans three interceptions this season with the other cornerback Iman Marshall and safety Leon McQuay III also having one each.

Utah’s offense has been up and down this season. It is true that the offense has been much more explosive than in year’s past, and Troy Williams has shown the ability to scramble away from pressure and deliver a quick release, both things he will need to do against a Trojan defense focused on pressuring the quarterback. It will be critical for Williams to improve his decision making, particularly in the red zone against this talented Trojan defense. As evidenced last year, players like Cam Smith and Adoree Jackson have the ability to change games with forced turnovers.

The offensive line will also face their toughest challenge of the season so far. Up until this point the offensive line has had their share of issues. Those will need to be cleaned up this week as USC’s defense has athletes not seen on SUU, BYU or SJSU’s defense. Players like Stevie Tu’ikolovatu and Porter Gustin will definitely be fired up to play in front of a Utah crowd as well.

The offense’s effectiveness will come down to how well they can move the ball on the ground. USC’s defense is giving up almost 200 yards rushing per game ranking them 98th in the country. The fact that Alabama and Stanford are two of the better run based offenses in the country has a lot to do with it. The blue print is there for the Utes to follow however, and if Utah can establish a run game against a USC defense that already uses seven in the box, things will open up deep for both Tim Patrick and Corey Butler-Byrd.

We’ll take a look at USC’s offense and new starting quarterback Sam Darnold later this week.