Last year, the Trojans posted signs all around Heritage Hall, proclaiming their mantra: “That’s our ball!”
And yet, for the past several years, the Trojan defense has been subpar in forcing turnovers.
The Trojans ranked 90th nationally in 2011 with just 1.4 takeaways per game (for an embarrassing comparison, UCLA averaged 1.5). The 2010 team fared only slightly better, with just 1.9 takeaways per game.
Compare that to the Trojans’ run of success under Uncle Pete. 2003: 3.2 takeaways per game, Rose Bowl winners and split national champions. 2004: 2.9 takeaways per game, National champions. 2005: 2.9 takeaways per game, national runner-up.
The takeaway: takeaways matter. And this year’s Trojan defense is showing that. USC sits at 11th nationally with 2.7 takeaways per game, close to double last season’s average.
“It’s just a more experienced defense than a couple years ago,” senior safety Jawanza Starling said after the Trojans’ victory in Seattle on Saturday. “We’ve been in the system for a while and guys know what they’re supposed to do.”
Indeed, every one of USC’s starting linebackers and defensive backs has at least one full year of starts under his belt. And those “newcomers,” the USC defensive line? Well, their 22 sacks are the fifth-most nationally, and the pressure they generate has certainly played an impact on several of the Trojans’ 11 interceptions this season.
Think about the critical moments of USC’s games this season. Senior safety T.J. McDonald’s interception in the red zone against Cal with the Bears driving, down by just eight point. Junior cornerback Nickell Robey’s forced fumble against Utah, which allowed the Trojans to come back from 14 down and take a lead they did not relinquish.
And then there was the fourth quarter of Saturday’s game with Washington, down just 10 points, drove down the field with all the momentum on their side. Then, on second and goal from the USC three-yard line, Starling knocked the ball out of Washington quarterback Keith Price’s hands and fell on it. Just like that, the Huskies’ momentum was gone.
Though lacking the same level of drama, it was nonetheless reminiscent of Starling’s game-changing — and arguably season-altering — 97-yard fumble return touchdown at Notre Dame last season (even if Starling won’t admit it).
“That fumble [at Notre Dame] was a sparkplug for the whole season,” Starling said after the game in Seattle. “[The one today] was a sparkplug for just this game.”
Last year, the Trojan defense forced nine interceptions and recovered eight fumbles for a total of 17 takeaways over 12 games. Over their first six games this year, they have already forced 11 interceptions and recovered five fumbles for a total of 16 takeaways. Halfway through the season, the Trojans are on pace for twice as many takeaways as last year.
“That’s an experienced group,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin of his defense after practice on Tuesday. “Between Jawanza, T.J. and Nickell, they’ve been responsible for some huge plays for us.”
The linebackers have been predictably strong as well, making the Trojan’s back seven fierce. Sophomore linebacker Dion Bailey, a converted defensive back, leads the team in interceptions with four. But perhaps the biggest difference this year is in their defensive line.
True freshman Leonard Williams and junior transfer Morgan Breslin have combined for 12.5 sacks this year. Breslin’s seven sacks place him 11th nationally. The Trojans came up with 31 sacks last season and are on pace for 44 this year.
“We’ve added two big pass rushers,” Kiffin said of the pair. “Leonard [Williams] has made a huge impact on the inside for us.”
In addition to pressuring the opposing quarterback into interceptions, the defensive line has forced two of the five fumbles and recovered four of them.
Everyone thought it would be the Trojan offense who would lead this team by putting up 40 points a game and throwing for five touchdowns. But while the offense sputters trying to find its rhythm, the Trojan defense has emerged as the squad’s dominant unit.
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