The USC defense, an oft-maligned group, was searching for answers coming into this season, and even midway through the year, more questions kept arising.
On Oct. 1, the Trojans surrendered a total of 425 yards and 41 points, while allowing Arizona to convert 37 first downs — a program first. It also marked the first time in school history the Trojans had allowed opposing teams to score more than 40 points in consecutive games.
Rewind back to Arizona State on Sept. 24, they similarly surrendered 43 points.
But in recent weeks, many of the questions have been answered and the consistency the players have been searching for under defensive guru assistant head coach Monte Kiffin and defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron is finally starting to show. In three of USC’s last four matchups, it has allowed fewer than 20 points and fewer than 270 yards of total offense.
“They feel good about themselves and a lot of it is confidence,” Kiffin said following Tuesday’s practice. “I think we’ve played pretty well. We’re getting more confident in what we’re doing.”
Part of that can be attributed to USC’s rush defense, which ranks eighth in the nation, allowing 100 yards per contest — a big improvement from a year ago when it gave up 140.5 rushing yards per game. Throughout the last five games, however, opposing teams have averaged just 88 rushing yards.
And in three of its last five games against California, Notre Dame and Washington, USC has held its opponents to less than 50 rushing yards.
The Trojans’ linebackers have played a big role in that. For much of the season, USC has started redshirt freshmen Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard and senior linebacker Chris Galippo.
They rank No. 1 and No. 2 in tackles on the team, respectively. In the last two games, however, the Trojans have used a pair of true freshmen in Tre Madden and Lamar Dawson. And the coaching staff has taken notice of their progress throughout the season.
“They’ve really developed,” Kiffin said. “We have a lot of really good young linebackers. The more experience they get, they’ll get better. They’re good athletes and they can make plays.”
Though USC’s youth and inexperience might have showed in the beginning of the season, now that the team is in week 11, Kiffin believes his young core of linebackers will only improve in the remainder of this season and into the future.
“We’re still a fairly young defense, but now we’re better,” Kiffin said. “They’re playing faster now and if they know what they’re doing, they’ll continue to [get better].”
Sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey echoed similar sentiments.
“We have a lot of young [talent],” he said. “They just have to continue to do the things that they’re doing and we’ll be fine. They work hard every day in practice and get better throughout games and that’s what we want to see.”
The secondary has also benefitted from the play of the its front seven. Against Washington, USC recorded a season-high seven sacks, constantly putting pressure on quarterbacks Keith Price and Nick Montana. The Trojans’ pass defense has allowed opposing quarterbacks to pass for 250 yards or less in three of its last four contests.
“It makes our job easier,” Robey said after the Washington game. “It allows [us] to see better and cover better because we’re getting so much pressure. It’s a great thing to have that pass rush.”
The players feel strongly that the defense is clicking at the right time and that the unit has made significant strides from the beginning of the season.
“We’re in a rhythm right now,” Robey said. “It feels so good. It’s so good when you see things come together and I feel things have really come together for us as a defense. It’s like we’re a whole different team.”