With all the attention being paid on who would start at quarterback for the USC offense, it would be understandable for some fans watching the game to forget that the team actually had to play defense on Thursday night, too.
The Trojan defense quickly reminded them of its presence.
Led by a downright dominant performance by the front seven, USC relentlessly hounded Hawai’i quarterback Taylor Graham all night en route to a 30-13 victory.
For new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, his new gig could not have gotten off to a better start.
USC allowed Hawai’i to gain only 231 yards and forced four turnovers, including redshirt junior safety Josh Shaw’s 35-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter that gave the Trojans a two-possession lead.
Pendergast’s defense needed to be overpowering on this night, because the Trojan offense was anything but. With redshirt quarterback Cody Kessler at the helm for the entire first half, USC sputtered on offense, gaining just 159 yards and turning the ball over twice. The offense also allowed Hawai’i to score its lone five points of the game, with a safety and subsequent field goal as a result of good field position following the punt.
Coach Lane Kiffin’s playcalling was extremely conservative all night, largely restricting his gunslingers to checkdowns and short routes.
Both Kessler and Max Wittek were unspectacular, although Wittek’s stat line would have looked more impressive had Lee not dropped what would have been a sure-touchdown in the waning moments.
No matter USC’s offensive struggles, the defense continued to bring the pressure, rendering the Warriors’ running attack nonexistent and forcing Graham to fire wild passes under duress. In his first career game for Hawai’i, Graham finished just 16-for-41 for 208 yards and one touchdown with four interceptions.
Although the Trojan offense struggled through the air as well, the running attack mostly split between redshirt junior Tre Madden and freshman Justin Davis was effective with both backs averaging more than five yards per carry.
Although Madden was the offense’s workhorse with 18 carries and 109 yards, Justin Davis impressed in his collegiate debut with multiple displays of athleticism, including an acrobatic leap over an oncoming defender en route to the end zone for the only rushing touchdown of the night by either team.
Even sophomore tailback Javorious “Buck” Allen impressed in his four carries, trucking a Hawai’i defender on a highlight run for a first down in the fourth quarter.
The wide receivers did what they could with what they had, and Marqise Lee managed to put together a 109-yard performance despite his quarterbacks going a combined 15-for-29 with 172 yards.
Lee was not without his faults — the junior Heisman contender dropped a fourth-down pass on the Trojans’ first drive into the red zone and fumbled away the ball on a punt return in the second quarter to go along with the dropped long ball from Wittek.
Sophomore Nelson Agholor pulled in the Trojans’ only passing touchdown of the night from Kessler, who also threw an interception.
Both teams struggled to convert on third down, with USC going 3-for-14 and Hawai’i going 4-for-18.
USC struggled with penalties as well, conceding 75 yards on nine penalties, including two flags for illegal substitution infractions on the same drive.
The Warriors finally put a touchdown on the board in the last minute, as Graham completed a Hail Mary pass to freshman receiver Keith Kirkwood over the head of USC freshman cornerback Devian Shelton.
But overall, the Trojan defense held strong against the hapless Hawai’i offense, with redshirt junior linebacker Hayes Pullard, redshirt junior safety Dion Bailey and freshman safety Su’a Cravens all racking up interceptions.
Bailey also recorded a sack to go along with two apiece from sophomore defensive tackle Leonard Williams and junior defensive tackle George Uko.
Junior kicker Andre Heidari was strong in his debut, going three-for-three on his field goal attempts including a career-high 52-yard conversion to close the first half. Otherwise, the rest of the Trojans special teams looked shaky and had trouble protecting Lee who managed only eight yards on two punt returns.
The Trojans will have to improve on offense if they wish to compete with the stronger competition they will be facing in the Pac-12. Compared to the likes of Oregon, Stanford and UCLA the Trojans lacked polish on offense and failed to establish any sort of rhythm even with Kessler playing for the entire first half.
Kiffin will be pressed to make a decision regarding quarterbacks soon but neither seemed to distinguish themselves as the clear-cut leader in the ongoing race for the starting gig.
It will be interesting to see how Pendergast’s 5-2 defensive scheme manages against higher-powered offenses in the conference, but on this night they displayed the chaotic potential the scheme possesses.
The Trojan faithful have to hope that the offense establishes a sense of continuity going into the Pac-12 opener next week at home against Washington State.
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