After a nail-biting win following a last-minute comeback attempt by Arizona, the football team is on a bye week before taking on Colorado at home. On Tuesday, USC held the first of its two practices on its week off.
The team, especially the defense, focused heavily on conditioning and controlling fatigue, something that almost cost the Trojans the game down the stretch as they allowed 20 unanswered points to Arizona in the final quarter and a half. Numerous injuries, most notably to senior captain and offensive lineman Porter Gustin (knee) have forced defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to experiment with different lineups in practice before throwing them out on gameday.
The most crucial, as Pendergast alluded to, are the absences of sophomore safety Bubba Bolden, who has not suited up this year for undisclosed reasons, and redshirt freshman safety Isaiah Pola-Mao, out for the year after injuring his shoulder against Stanford in Week 2. Despite the challenges, Pendergast has been impressed from what he’s seen from other players stepping up in practice.
“I think we’re finally developing some continuity, particularly in the secondary,” Pendergast said. “I like playing a lot of the same guys together, and particularly in the back seven, where they can kind of get a feel working together. It’s been tough for [senior safety Marvell Tell III] because he hasn’t really been able to settle in with one safety that he can play with the majority of the time.”
However, Pendergast singled out freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga as one player who he particularly believes is ready to take on a greater role.
“It’s pretty much proven now that Hufanga can be that guy, so I think that is the 1-2 punch there at safety that I’m excited about, continuing to grow as the season grows,” Pendergast said. “Now that the season’s moving on, that I think will help the whole defense.”
Tell has led the Trojans in tackles every single game this year. For him to get consistent help from his fellow defensive backs and develop chemistry will help make sure that the defense can sustain the level of production it did through the first two and a half quarters against the Wildcats.
Freshman defensive lineman Jay Tufele believes that the Trojans have proven that they can execute their game plan, and that they’ll only continue to improve as the intangibles start to develop.
“The whole week we were just emphasizing on defense that we were gonna stop the run,” Tufele said. “All of the stuff we were doing in practice that we were working on, it was all leading up to that, and I think we did a great job on Saturday proving that we could be efficient on stopping the run.”
Sophomore defensive lineman Brandon Pili concurred with Tufele.
“We prepped for them all week,” Pili said. “We knew they had a looser back, we knew they had a solid O-line, and we just prepared how we usually prepare for run heavy teams. We just went out there and did our thing.”
Helton gets back to the basics
Head coach Clay Helton is taking advantage of the bye week to resolidify his team’s foundation and principles.
“[We] really concentrated on not as much scheme work, but fundamentals, techniques and things that we need to improve individually,” Helton said. “There was a lot of individual time, some good competition in one-on-one, in team run and then some development on some of those players that are just on the edge, that are just one-snap away from being starters with injuries.”
Helton as a whole was pleased with his defense’s play in stopping a very dynamic Arizona offense.
“Our goal was to go in the game, stop the running game … but make it one-sided where the quarterback had to play and had to be a thrower,” Helton said. “To limit the explosive plays — they were a seven -yard play per team average team, a very explosive team … it was really a shutout in the first half.”
Helton attributed the defense’s gritty performance to one key theme: discipline.
“The problem that people were having was somebody would take the bait, get out of their gap, and when [Arizona running back JJ] Taylor hits a hole, he is gone,” Helton said. “I thought the discipline of gap integrity … held firm all night on it. I was really proud of them.”
Gustin is nursing an ankle injury. His status is unknown until next week.
Redshirt junior inside linebacker John Houston Jr. is dealing with a neck injury. He will be reevaluated on Monday.
Freshman cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart suffered a high ankle sprain. He will be out for several weeks.