Defensive woes with new scheme expected


Let me start off by dispelling the notion that patience is a virtue when it comes to following sports.

In fact, I am convinced that whoever came up with that thought-provoking proverb never had to experience the agony of watching his team lose on gut-wrenching, last-second drives two weeks in a row.

A proven mind · Trojans defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has instituted a variation of his famed Tampa-2 defense at USC, but the team’s recent struggles have some people questioning his decision. - Photo courtesy of USC Sports Information

We live in a world of sports dominated by the phrase “What have you done for me lately?” It is a phrase that largely diminishes any redeeming value in rooting with a sense of calm and optimism, regardless of the outcome.

It’s the reason you likely pulled out some chunks of well-groomed hair, or, if you come from the more uncouth ilk of fanaticism, yelled your favorite four-letter obscenities when kickers Erik Folk and Nate Whitaker landed knockout blows to the Cardinal and Gold in painful succession these last two weeks.

Odds are, after the bitterness and shock of watching the ball sail effortlessly through the uprights subsided, curse words and sighs of “not again” quickly transformed into finger-pointing and overly emotional statuses on your favorite social networking websites.

And though I can’t blame you for your passion and enthusiasm, after perusing the endless amounts of online outrage, it appears your index finger needs some redirection.

When news broke in January that defensive guru Monte Kiffin would be Tennessee two-stepping his way out of Knoxville and heading where the grass really is greener, the buzz around Los Angeles was actually more noticeable than when the original announcement came down that his son, Lane, was actually the one leading the charge from the Volunteer State to the gates of Troy.

Here was a guy with almost 45 years of coaching experience, a Super Bowl pedigree not typically found in Division I football and a defensive method that went from unconventional methodology to a strategic staple in professional and collegiate locker rooms across the country before you could even spell out T-A-M-P-A-2.

It was simple: If the man with the actual blueprints was coming to USC, then the Trojans’ illustrious defense was surely back in business after a year of hibernation.

But somewhere between his first steps off the charter jet and the 69 points his defensive unit surrendered to Washington and Stanford, the once-beloved elder Kiffin has fallen out of favor with fans faster than Al Pacino did in the first 20 minutes of The Godfather Part III.

Sanctions or no sanctions, success isn’t just expected from the disillusioned play-callers from the stands; it’s demanded.

If you are directing your siege of cynicism in the 70-year-old coordinator’s direction, however, I’d like to politely caution you.

Frankly, as individuals that see the game on the less important side of the white lines, we only really know the Tampa-2 on a surface level.

We’ve heard of its historical significance, the trophies it helped win and even the players it pushed onto the map of notoriety.

But what often gets blurred, from the field to the land of lunacy we call fanhood, are the complexities that lie beneath the successes.

At its core, the Tampa-2 is a bend-but-don’t-break philosophy that relies more on the sum of its parts than on any one or two individuals.

It favors speed and range over the traditional size and strength. Prevention and subtle opportunism trump physicality and traditionalism.

Most importantly, your personnel is your personnel. Monte Kiffin’s innovative plan of attack relies on the ability of its participants to take on roles they ordinarily wouldn’t play in, say, a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme.

Outside linebackers are typically asked to drop back in the secondary; safeties are encouraged to blitz often; cornerbacks don’t need to be proficient at coverage skills but rather top-notch tacklers, and your anchor and most dynamic player is the middle linebacker, who captains the unit by combining his above-average speed with a knack for reading the opposing quarterback.

If this sounds like a match made in heaven for USC’s starting sophomore middle linebacker Devon Kennard, senior cornerback Shareece Wright and freshman Nickell Robey, and sophomore safeties T.J. McDonald and Jawanza Starling — who came into the year with a combined three starts — please re-evaluate your expectations immediately.

This team — and more directly this beleaguered unit — was bound to hit several bumps in the road this season.

Washington quarterback Jake Locker’s improbable 18-yard jump pass to receiver De’Andre Goodwin on fourth and long, Washington running back Chris Polk’s 26-yard scamper up the gut and Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor’s you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me 16-yard stroll toward impending victory are the indelible moments that continue to open up water cooler debates as to whether or not Monte Kiffin still has the magic touch.

But to even fuel such fodder about a man and his renowned creation, whose rèsumès respectively speak for themselves, is foolish to say the least.

It’s an uncomfortable sight to watch opposing fans and players storm the field moments after watching your peers lay victim to another heartbreaking defeat.

And with a tradition that preaches immediacy and lofty goals regardless of surrounding circumstances, I understand the frustration and prevailing groans that continue to echo from Palo Alto to this melancholy campus in the aftermath of the most recent one that got away.

Yet, it is crucial not to neglect the writing that has remained on the wall since before the season even began — words that spoke to inexperience, change and patience as the Trojans and their program made a hasty about-face in the wake of untimely departures and NCAA backlash.

The sample size for USC’s defense this season is by no means aesthetically pleasing — 26 points per game, 428.7 yards of total offense per game, countless missed tackles, misguided penalties and two losses that more or less resulted from the inability to make crucial stops.

Nonetheless, call on some history of Monte Kiffin’s most recognized stomping ground and you’ll find similar alarming numbers at first glance.

In 1996, during his first year in Tampa Bay, the Nebraska native’s defensive unit was almost as hideous as its Orange Crush jerseys. The Buccaneers — who finished fourth in the NFC Central — began the year 1-8, behind a Warren Sapp-, Donnie Abraham- and John Lynch-led defense that allowed more than 20.6 points per game in those losses and suffered forgettable, lopsided routs to the tune of 34-3 and 27-0.

The following year, however, Kiffin’s defense lead the NFC in fewest points allowed, fewest yards allowed and total offense allowed, en route to the franchise’s first playoff appearance in 15 years.

During the rest of his 11-year tenure in the Sunshine State, the Tampa-2-led Buccaneers never finished  below the top 10 in total team defense.

Although I cannot assure you that such a turnaround will happen at nearly the same rate here, there is a reason why his playbook has rarely been tampered with, despite being passed down from eager coaches near and far: It works.

Time is of the essence. You have a four-year window to experience the winning culture firsthand, and then the door violently closes, forcing you to vicariously live through it from afar.

Despite the overarching tendency to view growth week to week only as it is defined on an LCD scoreboard, I advise, when looking at where Monte Kiffin and this defense are headed, to search beyond the box scores and stat sheets.

Look a little deeper, and I promise you will find that the proof really is in the pudding.

“For The Love Of The Game” runs Wednesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Dave at dulberg@usc.edu.

2 replies
  1. Rich Salas
    Rich Salas says:

    Tom
    To call Lane “unqualified” despite his resume strips you of all credibilty. Who cares who Pat Haden would have hired. Any true football fan knows it takes more then a year to build a program. Maybe hold your tongue untill 2013, then you woud have a clear pix of where we are…right now you just sound ridiculous.

  2. Tom Brown
    Tom Brown says:

    The only excuse for bringing an unqualified coach like Lane Kiffin to SC was the argument that his dad, Monte, was defensive genius. The last two losses to Washington and Stanford, where those teams amassed 500+ yards, then launched last minute drives to negate all that the offense had done renders that argument totally false. Sure the defense is young, but they showed no heart in letting the Huskies and Cards run over them. Shame on Monte and Lane!

    BTW…Are there any Torjan fans out there who really think that Pat Haden would have hired a coach who has done nothing to earn a position at one of the nation’s’ top programs?!

Comments are closed.