As the sixth-ranked USC Trojans enter the offseason, players, coaches and fans have a lot of things to remember from the 2011 season. Junior quarterback Matt Barkley threw a conference-record 39 touchdown passes, sophomore receiver Robert Woods and freshman receiver Marqise Lee totaled more than 1,000 yards receiving and, best of all, the Trojans went 10-2.
But behind the offensive fireworks stood a defense with a chip on its shoulder, and behind that defense stood a 70-year-old man many thought should have been fired after the 2010 season.
Monte Kiffin and the Trojan defense began the 2011 season as a major enigma. Many wondered whether Kiffin’s famous Tampa-2 defense would work in college football. He made a living in the NFL from this defensive strategy, which relies on speed and agility, especially linebackers who can drop back into pass coverage.
When Kiffin entered the college ranks in 2009, it was his first time coaching student-athletes since 1980. After a short tenure at Tennessee, Monte and son Lane ventured to Los Angeles to restore an explosive offensive and stingy defense.
Defensively speaking, things didn’t start off as planned, to say the least. During the 2010 season, the Trojans gave up 26.7 points and 400 yards per game defensively. Despite Monte Kiffin’s defensive prestige, something was not working.
Fast forward to 2011.
The Trojans gave up 23.6 points per game, ranking 45th in the country. That might not seem like a huge difference from the previous year, but a closer look at the numbers and the roster reveals that the squad had only two senior starters, and featured mostly freshman and sophomores, particularly at linebacker. Hidden behind that youth, though, was a perfect recipe for the Tampa-2 system.
The linebacking core was made up of redshirt freshmen Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard, senior Chris Galippo, and true freshman Lamar Dawson, who started the last few games of the season in Galippo’s place. Bailey was formerly a safety, and Hayes and Dawson are lightning quick on their feet. At defensive end were juniors Nick Perry, Wes Horton and Devon Kennard, all great athletes with the ability to get to the quarterback or play the run. The defensive backfield featured sophomore Nickell Robey and junior T.J. McDonald, who, combined, had five interceptions in 2011.
Monte Kiffin finally had the players he needed to compete in the ever-changing landscape of college football: his explosive linemen, linebackers and playmakers in the secondary.
The defensive improvement was most evident against Oregon, which was one of the top offenses in the country, averaged 46.1 points per game and racking up more than 520 yards a contest. The Trojan defense allowed 35 points, Oregon’s third-lowest output of the season, and by far the least amount of points they scored at Autzen Stadium. They forced turnovers and got to the quarterback. Their linebackers made plays in coverage. They held the nation’s leading rusher, LaMichael James, to 78 yards on the ground.
Though it might have taken a year longer than expected, Kiffin’s defense is finally in place. It was not a liability in 2011. It was a strength. The defense has the right players in place for 2012 with nine returning starters. With a preseason top-five ranking in sight, the Matt Barkley-led offense now features a defense that can match its play-making ability. As exciting as the defense was this past season, it figures to be even better next year, in the same way that the 2011 defense improved after 2010.
Oh, the difference a year makes.
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