If you’ve been watching USC’s defense this season, you’ve probably heard this sound more often than any other: whiff!
That’s the sound of the Trojans tackling, or at least attempting to do so. If defense is USC’s greatest weakness, tackling is the most troublesome part of the equation. If USC’s defense is anything like Achilles, the inability to tackle is its heel.
The Trojans’ trouble with bringing opponents to the ground has plagued them all year, and they’ve given up monster games to athletic offenses. It started with Hawai’i’s 588-yard eye-opening bombardment, and was finally confirmed when Washington dogged the Trojans for 537 yards and handed them their first loss of the season.
Especially glaring was when a few USC players whiffed on Washington running back Chris Polk’s long run that put his team in field-goal range during the Huskies’ game-winning drive.
It is well known by now that the Trojans don’t go live in practice. They try to keep everyone on their feet in hopes of limiting injuries as much as possible in an already-depleted squad.
So with the Trojans’ defensive shortcomings finally biting them last Saturday, is it time to start tackling in practice? That should fix everything, right?
Wrong. It still wouldn’t be worth the risk.
It has been USC coach Lane Kiffin’s strategy since the middle of fall practice, and it is still a logical one. Sanctions equal fewer players, which means a team that has less tolerance for injuries that don’t happen on game day.
USC senior cornerback Shareece Wright understands the toll the game takes on players’ bodies. Regardless of the Trojans’ obvious issues on Saturdays, Wright still supports Kiffin’s no-tackle policy.
“We can’t go live [in practice]; we’d all be banged up,” Wright said after the Washington loss.
The problem is not even one of technique, but one of mentality.
“I feel we’re trying to kill people and trying to take kill shots,” Wright said.
Instead of making the sure hit, USC is looking for the big hit. If ever there were a season when being fancy was meaningless, this is it.
It’s not that veteran guys, such as Wright or senior linebacker Michael Morgan, forgot how to tackle. They are just as capable of tackling without beating one another up every day in practice.
It’s a question of rhythm.
The difference between a tackle and a whiff is a split second of timing picked up through repetition on the practice field.
USC used to have so much depth that its two-deep roster could probably field two separate competitive football teams. Practices were fast-paced. The Trojans were encouraged to hit one another, with vicious hits regularly eliciting oohs and ahs from spectators.
Unfortunately, USC no longer has that luxury.
The Trojans could start going live in practice, and you would probably see measurable improvement in tackling. Still, the potential cost would be too great.
USC is so thin in its front seven that redshirt junior linebacker Chris Galippo played snaps at defensive end last Saturday to give the fatigued defensive linemen a break. Inevitably, the chances that a starter gets injured goes way up if he is hitting or taking hits in practice.
Undoubtedly, tackling is a key issue in these huge defensive letdowns. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not the only problem.
Even if Kiffin were willing to take the risk in practice, fixing the tackling issue would only go so far. The Trojan defense is often out of position. It is largely inexperienced. It is not very deep.
So although tackling in practice appears to be a quick fix, the Trojans’ problems run much deeper. And Kiffin has to do all he can to keep the Trojans as healthy as possible in a forum where he can control it.
As long as the Trojans have reduced numbers that prevent them from going live in practice, the whiffs will keep coming.
“Middle Ground” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Josh at email@example.com.