In the midst of a two-game losing streak, the USC football team aims to solidify its defensive game plan that conceded 37 points in the defeat to Texas.
After practice on Tuesday, head coach Clay Helton highlighted how team struggled with his third down defense, the catalyst that allowed Texas to catch fire.
“I think it’s going to be critical in this game,” Helton said. “They’ve done tremendous in pass rush. Ten sacks on the year in three games right now, and they’re doing a great job protecting the quarterback … only giving up two sacks.”
The defense seemed re-energized in practice, with players constantly high-fiving following good plays and giving motivation after bad ones. After going up 14-3 in the first quarter, USC gave up 34 unanswered points as freshman quarterback JT Daniels put up yards but was unable to find the red zone.
In addition, USC struggled to stop Texas from steadily marching down the field on third down; Texas went 10-of-19, and USC’s defense eventually gave in to fatigue. Helton also discussed the team’s ground game.
“I think the biggest thing offensively is to understand that the run game must go,” Helton said. “I was very pleased with the quarterback and the wide receiver, the skill athletes responded in the passing game, but obviously the best friend to a quarterback is the running game.”
When asked what went wrong on offense, Helton reaffirmed his support of offensive coordinator Tee Martin, who has faced some criticism following USC’s performance.
“Probably the miscommunication,” Helton said. “The down on fourth and one. That’s one that’s just in the pit of my stomach, could not have had a better play call. I thought Tee called a perfect play … just had a miscommunication with our offensive line.”
The Cougars are not afraid to gamble on extending their drives, and they are not afraid to go for the home run plays either; senior quarterback Gardner Minshew II is third in the nation with 1,203 passing yards to go along with eight touchdowns and three interceptions. Minshew has already thrown 165 passes this year, over half as many as he attempted last season in 10 games at East Carolina.
On the other side of the field, Daniels has 819 yards with one score and three picks on 117 passes. The Cougars have put up 131 points in three games and feature a deep receiving core, with five players who have between 125 and 290 yards. Helton is taking note of Wazzu’s fourth down threat.
“They are a four down team,” Helton said. “If you look at them, in three games, they’ve already gone for it on fourth down 11 times. You really have to be able to play them as a four down team. It’s not only third, but it’s fourth so we got some extra third down work, especially on defense today.”
Senior captain and outside linebacker Porter Gustin will miss the first half of Friday’s game after being ejected for targeting in the third quarter against Texas.
Redshirt junior defensive lineman Christian Rector, who forced and recovered a fumble, shared his thoughts on the targeting rules.
“We want to play fast,” Rector said. “You see it in the NFL too — the increased penalties on targeting calls and players getting ejected and fined. The game’s definitely changed in that sense.”
Rector also preached his confidence in the fundamentals that the defense has been practicing since last spring.
“We go out there with the mindset that we get the ball back and put it in JT’s hands,” he said. “We practice that every day. We don’t let anybody run through our defense without trying to poke at the ball, rip the ball out … we preach that a lot in camp and in practice.”
Sophomore starting kicker Chase McGrath is out for the season with a torn ACL. McGrath was 6-of-8 on field goals and 6-of-6 on extra points.
Sophomore right guard Andrew Vorhees is a questionable choice to play against Washington State after straining his MCL against Texas.
Sophomore offensive tackle Austin Jackson sat out due to sickness but should return Wednesday.