I don’t remember what happened to the Trojans this weekend, and no, it’s not for the reason most folks would expect of a college student on game day. It’s because in the rush of having to step on the field to interview players, tweeting out the final result of USC’s game against ASU (which I presumed would end 34-32), I was shocked to hear big cheers from the ASU supporting contingent of the crowd. Everything was a blur. Members of the press rushing to the visiting players. USC players walking off the field looking equal parts shocked and enraged. The student section sitting in stunned silence, while f-bombs were hurled in the hallway to the home locker room.
Let’s be honest — nobody needs to relive the moment ASU wide receiver Jaelen Strong snatched a wobbly Hail Mary pass from Mike Bercovici out of the sky — with the exception of the defensive coaching staff, who should have the GIF of that play on loop permanently set as their desktop background.
On the field, it looked as if Strong and the Good Lord Himself were the only ones who knew where that ball was going. USC sophomore defensive back Leon McQuay III was three yards deep into the end zone (where there were no receivers) — and he was the one of the closest USC players to the ball.
Senior linebacker Hayes Pullard, who was closest to the play, has been called upon to be many things for the Trojans over the years. Unfortunately, none of those things entailed morphing into Richard Sherman in Hail Mary situations. The three defenders backpedaling in intermediate coverage certainly didn’t know that Bercovici was going to go long. All of this adds up to the fact that I can’t blame the USC defensive players for that play, because it was probably the single worst play call I’ve seen all year.
That failed Hail Mary defense was actually more endemic of USC’s defense this season. The Trojans’ defense tries to do a lot of things. Sometimes it succeeds, but in the Trojans’ two losses, it failed. Badly.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox favors a 3-4 defense with a “bend, but don’t break” approach. It relies on the collapsing size of the field of play and the out-of-bounds markers to assist in the coverage game — it’s actually quite brilliant when it works. By the time an opposing offense marches into the red zone, Wilcox can drop linebackers into coverage and swarm the shortened field, giving the pass rush time to secure a sack or force a poor decision from opposing quarterbacks.
There’s a problem with this approach, though, and it’s the fact that when the system “breaks,” it’s incredibly costly — the Trojan defense that had given up zero passing touchdowns the entire season prior to Saturday gave Mike Bercovici five touchdowns and a story for his grandkids — not to mention an average of 18.9 yards per completed pass. Here’s a list of the length of ASU’s touchdown “drives”: 2:33, 2:24, 12 seconds, 14 seconds and 23 seconds.
It’s too early to call for USC head coach Steve Sarkisian’s job at this point, but the game was lost on some poor defensive play calling. The Trojan defense saw some major changes over the offseason — few of them were good changes. Let’s not forget that Dion Bailey and Demetrius Wright left for the NFL Draft, that this season’s newly christened Lord Voldemort is still indefinitely suspended with two high ankle sprains, and most importantly, Clancy Pendergast is looking for work.
This is not a test — the defensive coordinator of the Trojans’ hellacious, physical defense from last season is currently unemployed by a college football team. Meanwhile, Wilcox is given the nod when it was Pendergast’s breakneck coverage schemes under last season’s 5-2 defense that made the best use of junior defensive end Leonard Williams’ blocker-swallowing abilities.
Instead, the Trojans continue to bend, not break, under the befuddling schemes of Wilcox. Sophomore Su’a Cravens plays linebacker against a non-existent rushing attack and is nowhere to be found in what should have been a prevent scheme in the last seconds.
My colleague Jake Davidson wrote that the Trojans have yet to fashion an identity for themselves this season. He’s right. The notion of a Trojan defense being flimsy enough to even bend is so foreign to us that it does not merit comprehension. We’ve seen broken defenses (The People of USC v. Monte Kiffin, 2012), and we’ve seen the famous defenses of the Cushing, Matthews, Maualuga years. But we’ve never seen a defense as puzzling as this, incurring penalty after penalty and getting blown past on coverage despite two five-star recruit defensive backs in Cravens and McQuay.
The Trojans have a long way to go, both coaching and discipline-wise, before they can hope to beat the likes of head coach Rich Rodriguez and the Wildcats. This is not a matter of team morale, but a matter of one coaching staff simply outclassing the other — and I’m afraid Sarkisian and Wilcox may be in over their heads against Rich Rod in Tucson.
Euno Lee is a senior majoring in English literature. He is also the editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan. His column, “Euno What Time It Is,” runs Tuesdays.