USC’s defense returns to health before must-win game against ASU

Redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao tackles an Oregon wide receiver. Pola-Mao was ejected for targeting during last Saturday’s game and will return to face a tough Arizona State offense. ( Feitong Du / Daily Trojan)

After allowing Oregon to score five consecutive touchdowns in a 56-24 blowout over the weekend, the Trojan defense looked healthier at practice Wednesday. With key playmakers sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga and freshman defensive lineman Drake Jackson likely to jump back in against Arizona State, the squad looks forward to a more complete showing in Tempe, Ariz.

“We’ve got a very workmanlike group,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “They came in here ready and hungry and wanted to see the tape as quickly as they could and move on to make the corrections … So it’s been a good couple days.”

USC contained Oregon senior quarterback Justin Herbert out of the gate, but let up after redshirt sophomore safety Isaiah Pola-Mao’s ejection in the second quarter. Overall, the unit allowed Herbert to complete 80.8% of his passes and account for four total touchdowns while only forcing one turnover.

“It’s definitely hurtful because I couldn’t even come back to the sideline and talk to my guys, rally them up,” Pola-Mao said of Saturday’s ejection. “It’s just sad being in the locker room when the team is out there. Being by myself in there, it’s something I don’t plan on doing again.”

The time since Saturday’s blowout at the Coliseum has been spent nursing injuries, reviewing film and preparing for Arizona State’s mobile offense. With Pola-Mao back in the lineup, along with likely returns from Hufanga and Jackson, the Trojans’ young defense has a revived leadership corps. 

Even with that starting talent restored to the game plan, the Trojans aren’t underestimating the Sun Devils’ offense. Arizona State true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels — a dual-threat with scrambling talents reminiscent of Arizona’s senior signal-caller Khalil Tate — maneuvers gracefully through the pocket and confuses opposing secondaries.

“He’s a different type of scrambler,” defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a said. “If there’s any type of opening, he’ll take it. So we’ve got to be highly, highly aware of it.”

USC’s defense can’t afford to lose focus against such a talented quarterback. Arizona State ranks No. 19 in red zone offense, scoring nine rushing and three passing touchdowns in 25 attempts this season. Daniels has only thrown two interceptions through eight games and won’t likely give the Trojans many chances to turn him over the ball.

Sun Devils junior running back Eno Benjamin is also an elusive presence. With 679 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the season, the speedy, dynamic player is a weapon in the Arizona State backfield.

“They have talent all around the board,” Pola-Mao said of Arizona State’s offense. “At receiver they have great talent, quarterback and running back … As long as we communicate and do our job and play Trojan football, I think we’ll be good.”

If USC intends to stay in the Pac-12 Championship conversation, it must win out against ASU, Cal and UCLA. That requires the Trojans to display a prowess on the road they haven’t yet shown this season.

But first things first, USC needs to focus on discipline and carrying out its assignments against a dangerous Arizona State offense. Back from the shoulder injury that sidelined him since the Trojans’ romp over Arizona Oct. 19, Hufanga seems ready to reassume his leadership role in USC’s young secondary.

“Whatever the coaches want, I’m just trying to pay attention to detail in our practice and know my assignments,” he said. “If I get the opportunity to go in, I’ll make the most of it.”