“They don’t take us seriously.”
Senior captain Chris Hawkins shook his head as he stood outside of the locker room after USC’s victory over Oregon State last Saturday.
His team had just won 38-10 in a cakewalk of a game over the Beavers. But Hawkins wasn’t satisfied. He repeated that his team needed to improve, that there was still much to work on, that they weren’t playing their best.
Why, after a win, was he dissatisfied? Hawkins said it was simple. The rest of the NCAA still doesn’t think USC is for real. Despite only taking one loss — to a top 20 team on the road, no less — the Trojans remain outside the top 10.
After a less-than-perfect start to the season, they’ve been written off for the playoffs and even for some bowl games.
Hawkins already has an answer to the snub.
“We gotta start dominating teams,” Hawkins said. “It seems like the college football world takes us lightly, no matter if we win by a little or a lot. So we just gotta start dominating teams.”
Hawkins smirked as he said it. He wants to go old-school — 50-0 blowouts at home and on the road, just like what USC liked to hand out in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He wants his team to guarantee that an offense won’t score before it even steps on the field.
The Trojans are known for being hard on themselves, and nowhere is that more true than the defense. Junior linebacker and captain Cam Smith has a catchphrase, and it stuck to this year’s unit throughout this bumpy season.
“Keep it up here,” Smith will roar to his teammates on the field, raising his hand in a chopping motion by his right ear. “Right up here. Keep it up here.”
The defense echoes the phrase after every play. Good or bad, stop or first down, interception or reception, the players chop at the air with one hand. Keep it up here, they’ll yell. Keep it up here. The mantra has come to define the way the team wants to approach each snap.
“We know our standards and how we want to play,” sophomore cornerback Jack Jones said. “We have to play up here, we have to keep it coming. No matter the situation, we gotta play hard and give it our all.”
Smith has good reason to enter Saturday’s game with high expectations for both the team and himself. He found his rhythm against Utah at home as a freshman, when he was catapulted from relatively unknown status as a freshman to a cross-campus star after snagging three interceptions.
Since that game, Smith has risen to become a team captain and defensive leader. He currently leads the team with 19 solo tackles and 46 total, adding a sack to combine for 28 total yards of loss.
As a middle linebacker, Smith is the heart of the defense, noticing all of the team’s successes and flaws. Defense is a difficult position, he says, because even one mistimed tackle or flubbed coverage can result in a touchdown. The offense only has to get it right every other time. But for the defense, perfection is demanded and expected.
Although the team has been smothering this season, it has still allowed an average of 24 points per game. After holding Oregon State to 10 points, Smith and the rest of the defense plans on dropping that number to zero for the rest of the season.
Raising the team’s level of play to this level will take work at every position. And that consistency will be key, Smith says, to the defense becoming truly dominant.
“I think as a defense, and I can only speak for the defense, I think we’re playing great ball right now,” Smith said. “We’re just not playing four quarters yet.”