There were many question marks surrounding USC after its season-opening scare against Western Michigan. In particular, the Trojan defense seemed to have trouble keying in on the Broncos’ rushing defense. WMU out-rushed USC 263 yards to 232 — even as the running back duo of junior Ronald Jones II and freshman Stephen Carr averaged more than nine yards per carry and combined for five touchdowns.
It looked like more of the same to start last weekend, as Stanford brought its potent rushing offense to the Coliseum. Cardinal running back Bryce Love torched the Trojans for 102 yards on the ground in the first quarter alone, including a deflating 75-yard scamper that tied the score at seven immediately after USC had pushed in front. At the end of the first 15 minutes of play, Trojan runners were averaging less than four yards per carry; Love was averaging north of 20.
It wasn’t an ideal start, especially for a team with high hopes that seemed to be trending downward after Week 1. But no one was panicking in the Trojan locker room.
“Our saying is to stay up here all game long for four quarters,” junior linebacker Cameron Smith said. “Everyone’s buying in on that.”
Mantras like that often fall by the wayside when teams fail to adjust, but USC was a different defensive team for the final 45 minutes of Saturday’s game. Stanford rushed for only 68 yards over the next three quarters combined. The Trojans stopped five runs for a loss, the offense built up a lead and the Cardinal were forced to take to the air. Then, USC unleashed its full might — as the team had been preparing to do all week.
“[It was] one of the most aggressive plans that I’ve ever been a part of in 23 years,” head coach Clay Helton said. “I think [defensive coordinator] Clancy [Pendergast] had every blitz in his entire package and used it, and these kids executed.”
The Trojans only got home for two sacks on quarterback Keller Chryst: Senior defensive tackle Josh Fatu notched the first in the third quarter, and senior linebacker Uchenna Nwosu earned the second on Stanford’s final drive (redshirt sophomore linebacker John Houston Jr. recorded the lone quarterback hit of the night).
Nevertheless, the pressure was enough. The Cardinal mustered just 211 yards on offense after the first quarter, while USC racked up 463. Stanford trailed by at least two possessions through the entire second half.
It was a remarkable turnaround, but the Trojans appeared nonplussed after the game. To them, they were merely making expected in-season adjustments.
“We were able to step it up and really just fix the little things … to play more assignment-sound this week,” junior linebacker Porter Gustin said. “I think that was the big difference.”
Indeed, Helton emphasized containing the ground attack, and Love only managed 58 more yards after his 102-yard outburst to begin the game. But while improved execution revealed the defense’s potential on Saturday, the long season will also require confidence and chemistry. USC believes it has both.
“I think we’re playing really well as a unit,” Smith said. “We answered some questions we needed for ourselves.”
Considering the Trojans seemed unconcerned after their win against Western Michigan, it seems those questions didn’t stem from Week 1. They were likely from last season, when the Cardinal dominated USC 27-10 and relegated then-starting quarterback Max Browne to the bench.
That game turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as it handed a redshirt freshman quarterback named Sam Darnold the keys to the Trojan offense. A year later, Darnold’s presence has now elevated USC into the national championship chase.
For the defense, however, the game remained a thorny memory, especially as the last of three consecutive losses to Stanford. Saturday’s statement victory may have exorcised those demons.
“It took us a couple hard losses to get moving and preparing, and I think we learned from that last year,” Gustin said. “We’ve got guys in the film room hours on hours every single day because we don’t want to be in that situation again. To be able to get this win and see our preparation pay off is huge.”
With a confidence-building performance fresh in its mind, the defense now looks to carry over its success to the next grudge match, as the Trojans look to avenge their infamous loss to Texas in 2006 on Saturday. Crowd noise aided the defense against the Cardinal, and Helton urged fans to spur on the Trojan defense this weekend as well.
“Let’s get loud — we could feel it for the Stanford game, especially on third down,” Helton said. “We’ll lean on our Trojan Family once again for support.”
No. 4 USC kicks off against the Longhorns at 5:30 p.m. It is the first Coliseum sellout since 2013.