Interior play has lifted young Trojans this year


In the impossible task of giving credit where it is due after a hard-fought football game, offensive and defensive lines have begun to attract a bit more attention than they have historically. As the sport continues to change, the need for solid linemen has become glaringly apparent — no matter what type of formation a team faces, consistency and relentlessness are things no squad can win without.

Tough front · Led by a defensive line, including junior Wes Horton, USC ranks 16th nationally in rush defense, allowing 110.7 yards per game. - Brandon Hui | Daily Trojan

But the praise remains limited in scope. Though the sack count for a D-line might be hailed, the game ball will ultimately go to a playmaker more individually distinguishable. This is just a fact of football.

This is why, considering the success of USC football so far this season, there remains a major “pat on the back” left to be given out. For as good as junior quarterback Matt Barkley has been, or any number of running backs, wide receivers, linebackers or defensive backs for the Trojans, no other group has so clearly exceeded expectations like that of the USC linemen on both sides of the ball.

Defensively, the merits are apparent. Entering last Saturday’s game in Oregon with 23 sacks in 10 contests, the defensive line had given opponents — namely Andrew Luck and Stanford — more than a fair share of headaches. Using an explosive pass rush to set the tone, the Trojans have found myriad ways to disrupt some of the best offenses in the nation.

Considering the quality of play we have seen through 10 games, it was to be a bit expected that USC would not give Oregon any easy opportunities to put points on the board last Saturday. But, as has become the trend, the Trojan defensive line went far beyond simply playing a good game.

Led by senior captain Christian Tupou, the unit slowed down an Oregon offense that hadn’t lost in 21 straight games at home. USC’s front line effectively snuffed out much of the running threat that Heisman-hopeful running back LaMichael James presented, and moved on to maintain pressure on Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas.

Though Oregon’s dynamic offense was still able to put up decent statistics, USC’s front four accomplished what they set out to do — keep the furious pace the Ducks set, prevent the big play and ultimately force the Ducks to make mistakes. The fumble that freshman tackle George Uko forced out of James deep in USC territory near the end of the first half prevented a score, which ultimately impacted the direction of the game.

But for as much merit as the defensive line commands, it is its offensive counterpart that has shined brightest.

Supposedly decimated by injury, lacking depth and completely inexperienced, USC’s offensive line was targeted from the beginning of summer practice as the team’s weak link. If you had believed everything you read and watched in the news, it wouldn’t have been hard before the season started to picture the unit as a round-up of some of the heftier guys at USC that had nothing better to do than play football.

But with junior tackle Matt Kalil — who is playing the best football of his career — serving as anchor, the O-line has opened up incredible opportunities for the high-powered Trojan offense to get rolling. The unit ranks fifth in the nation in sacks allowed with four, which in turn has given Barkley the time he needs to execute plays.

Protecting the quarterback isn’t all the offensive line has succeeded at, either — consider the sudden emergence of a powerful rushing attack, led by senior Marc Tyler and junior Curtis McNeal. The two have combined for 1,418 yards and nine touchdowns, thanks in large part to the holes the O-line has created.

Though it might be hard to prove the worth of the offensive line on paper, one glance at the squad’s play is all you need to see how far it has progressed in just 11 games.

And if growth like that can be achieved in the course of a season, Trojan fans can get excited. Only senior Martin Coleman will graduate at the end of this year, leaving scholarship-depleted USC with a bevy of depth for the coming years.

It’s safe to say this has been somewhat of a coming-out season for the Trojans. On both sides of the ball, the team has executed and found ways to succeed, despite overwhelming criticism that pervades the public perception.

But in looking for those to praise for the impressive feats accomplished so far this season, remember the linemen who are so rarely put in the spotlight. Without their stellar play, it’s safe to say the Trojans wouldn’t be at the top looking down.

 

“One-Two Punch” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email James at jbianchi@usc.edu.