It was impossible not to be optimistic about USC’s defense coming into this season.
After all, the belief was that improvement was guaranteed — not because of a boost in experience, talent or coaching, but rather, because the 2011 defense couldn’t possibly be worse than the 2010 defense.
Last season, USC gave up an average of 400 yards per game, good enough to be tied with Duke for 83rd in the nation. Teams were scoring 26.4 points per game against the Trojans, and doing so mostly through the air — USC’s pass defense was ranked 100th in all of college football.
So with solid performances in weeks one and two, when the defense held the lead for the Trojans as the offense sputtered and died in the waning minutes of each game, it seemed as if the constant worry that pervaded last season was finally something to forget.
Flash-forward to week five, and it’s become clear that if anything is ready to be forgotten, it is the notion that stifling defense has returned to USC.
Arizona’s aerial thrashing of the Trojans last Saturday highlighted many of the consistent problems USC couldn’t seem to overcome a season ago.
The numbers are right there in the stat book — 554 yards of total offense for the Wildcats, led by a 425 yard, four-touchdown performance by quarterback Nick Foles. The senior captain spread the ball around to 12 different receivers, and completed 77 percent of his passes en route to putting up 41 points.
These are numbers that sound all too familiar for a Trojan unit that is supposed to have grown up.
Fortunately for USC, it was able to stay one step ahead of Arizona’s offense and eek out a 48-41 win. Coming against one of the worst defenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision, USC picked a good time to host a shootout.
But the same can’t be said for the 44-23 beatdown USC received from Arizona State in the desert two weeks ago.
USC gave up 141 yards rushing and three touchdowns to junior tailback Cameron Marshall, including a 70-yard score on ASU’s opening drive. Brock Osweiler, the mobile-yet-massive Sun Devils quarterback, also put up strong numbers, throwing for 223 yards and two touchdowns.
It didn’t help that the Trojans offense gave the ball away four times. But when USC was in desperate need of a stop, it simply couldn’t come up with one.
A simplified version of the defense the Trojans ran last season looked like a quick fix for this year’s team. But the pay-off hasn’t come yet, and USC has simply not been able to mobilize its defense. The Wildcats held possession for seven-and-a-half minutes longer than USC on Saturday, and the Sun Devils had an 11-minute advantage two weeks ago.
If you are asking why the defense has taken such a big step back from the beginning of the season to now, then you are asking the wrong question — the issue isn’t with USC’s defense necessarily.
Up until a run-in with the Arizona schools these last two weeks, the USC defense went largely untested. Once it had to face a well-coached spread offense (in both Arizona State and Arizona), holes opened up that the two teams had no problem exploiting.
It’s hard to contest the prowess of USC assistant coach Monte Kiffin, who is widely regarded as one of the great defensive minds in football today.
But time and time again it has become clear the current system is not working the way it is supposed to with the players that USC has on the field.
And now, with the meat of Pac-12 play on the horizon, the Trojans will surely be challenged as much, if not more on defense. It goes without saying that Stanford and Oregon have high-powered offenses, but even teams like Washington and California have proven they can light up the scoreboard.
Playing through the last two weeks will surely provide a lesson for the Trojans defense, as well as the coaching staff. But the same could be said about all of last season, which hasn’t been the stepping stone in the way the Trojans had hoped.
Until USC proves it can address its flaws and adapt to the offenses it is sure to encounter in 2011, there is a good chance Saturday’s shootout won’t be the last of its kind this year.
“One-Two Punch” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email James at firstname.lastname@example.org.