Days after giving up 536 yards of total offense in a 32-31 loss to Washington, the USC defense was back on the field Tuesday trying to improve itself for the high-powered, physical Stanford offense it will face Saturday.
The Trojans face another elite quarterback in Stanford’s Andrew Luck, and USC defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said the defense has to crack down on giving up significant yards.
“You can’t give up big plays,” he said. “You’re going to give up some yards and plays but when you get the big yardage like that it’s going to come from big plays. You don’t put up 500 yards of offense without big plays. How many times are you going to have 500 yards of offense that [are] five, six, seven, even 12 yards a clip?”
USC ranks 116th out of 120 teams in passing defense, giving up an average of 288 yards through the air each game. With Stanford ranking 29th in passing offense, averaging 255.6 yards per game led by preseason Heisman candidate Luck, the Trojans know they have to improve.
“You got to know you can’t take any plays off,” sophomore safety Jawanza Starling said. “It’s not a sense that you’re not mentally ready or prepared. It’s knowing that at anytime they can take a shot at you and go deep, not always expect the routes to go shorter or be run plays.”
The Trojans’ defense also needs to improve on missed tackles, something that doesn’t show up in the box score. USC missed several tackles when Washington running back Chris Polk ripped off a 26-yard run that put the Huskies in field-goal range late in the fourth quarter.
But the issue goes beyond that play and is something the Trojans have struggled with throughout the season.
“We’re not playing very well,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “We’re really emphasizing [missed tackles] this week. I obviously was hoping we’d play a lot better. Maybe early on I didn’t account for how inexperienced they really were. You’ve got a true freshman at corner, two true sophomores at safety getting their first significant playing time, and [senior cornerback] Shareece Wright, who many think is a veteran, had only three starts coming into this year. So maybe my expectations were a little high for them. But still with that we got to play a lot better.”
Kiffin said after Saturday’s loss that he would open up the kicking competition this week and he stuck to his word. Incumbent kicker senior Joe Houston, who is 2-for-6 on field goals for the year and missed a 40-yard attempt that hit the upright late in Saturday’s game, and senior punter Jacob Harfman both took six field goals apiece at the end of practice.
Houston went 2-for-6 and Harfman went 4-for-6 on kicks that were taken from about 35, 45 and 50 yards out.
Harfman said he hadn’t kicked a field goal in three months and didn’t know he was going to be kicking in practice until Tuesday afternoon.
Kiffin said the competition will last all week and whoever does better will kick on Saturday, but based on the combined 6-for-12 on field goals Tuesday, he wasn’t very optimistic when talking about the uprights.
“Basically what we got out of that was that we’ll be going for it more in the red zone if they don’t improve,” Kiffin said.
Senior fullback Stanley Havili did not participate in practice after dislocating his shoulder early in last week’s game.
Havili has had chronic problems with his left shoulder, and even though he popped it right back in after Saturday’s injury, he didn’t get another carry and only caught two more passes during the rest of the game.
Havili, who was crucial in the attack at Washington State, said he expects to practice and play this week, and that his injury won’t limit him in any way.
Consistent play has been lacking from the defensive front seven this year.
Excluding the Washington State game, the Trojans haven’t regularly gotten pressure on the quarterback or had crucial sacks, fumbles or interceptions — something Kiffin hopes to improve this weekend.
“We haven’t had a lot of significant plays in tough times — the big sack, the big fumble, the big interception, the big play on the ball that’s going to be a first down that they knock out,” Kiffin said. “I would imagine we’re the worst no-huddle defense in all of football right now. We’ve given up 34-37 points in no-huddle and something like 477 yards in no-huddle situations through five games. Those are points that people are getting real fast on us, where you need those types of [defensive] plays.”
Clarification: The print version of this story states that Jacob Harfman went 3-for-6 on field goals at Tuesday’s practice. Harfman actually went 4-for-6, which would bring the total between Harfman and Joe Houston to 6-for-12. The online version has been changed to reflect this edit.