In the two weeks since its loss to Washington, USC’s defense has taken time to get healthy and prepare for the toughest opponent on its schedule: No. 9 Notre Dame.
Sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga was proven to be irreplaceable when a concussion kept him on the sidelines against the Huskies. The Trojans’ defense struggled to fill his position, compiling just two sacks for five yards and no interceptions.
“You can see in [Hufanga’s] play he leads by example,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “He loves to do whatever it takes to be a good football player, and he’s demonstrated that this year.”
The Trojans will need that leadership if they expect to contain Notre Dame’s versatile offense. In its 52-0 shutout over Bowling Green last week, the Fighting Irish’s senior quarterback Ian Book accrued 340 yards for five touchdowns. Notre Dame’s backfield also racked up 233 rushing yards, rounding out a capable play-making unit.
“They’re very diverse in what they do,” Pendergast said. “They obviously have a very good [run-pass option] game with quick combinations outside and all the different formations … The quarterback sees the field really well and he knows the system and operates at a very high level.”
USC’s defense has worked on diversifying its playbook, maintaining a fortified line while covering the field’s periphery. This unit has struggled throughout the season with giving opposing quarterbacks too much time, which won’t bode well against Book and his talented skill players.
Pendergast’s group is also focusing on another historically weak point: making adjustments. USC struggles on both sides of the ball with modifying its plan mid-game, often causing late-game deficits following early leads. Against unpredictable competitors like Notre Dame, the Trojans will need to switch it up in order to keep the Irish from figuring out their strategy.
Defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a has faith that USC’s defense can keep Notre Dame on its toes.
“If I thought we weren’t a group that could handle quick adjustments like this, we wouldn’t do it,” Kauha’aha’a said. “But these guys can handle it…we made one little tweak which is easy for these guys to handle, and we’ll move forward.”
Hufunga’s re-entry into the starting lineup should bring the discipline and toughness necessary to contain Notre Dame. Though he still wore a non-contact jersey at Wednesday’s practice, he’s expected to step up and lead the secondary Saturday.
“Oh, it’s huge,” said Christian Rector, a redshirt senior defensive lineman, of Hufanga’s presence on the field. “It really boosts the confidence of the defense. He’s a great tackler in space, so that’s a guy we can rely on to come up big.”
With the rivalry hype, Hufanga is staying humble and sticking to his assignments.
“It’s going to be my first time out there, [getting] to experience the stadium, the culture, the lifestyle,” he said. “For us to go out there and try to win, that’s our goal.”
Win or lose, Hufanga’s main priorities are to stay healthy and mentor his teammates on the field. As the leader of this young defense, he looks to keep everyone on track not only against Notre Dame, but through the rest of the season.
“To get back on the field and just play around with my brothers, it’s a great opportunity,” Hufanga said. “I’m just excited to be back.”