It’s been a couple of weeks since I could write that USC won, but Saturday’s 38-17 beatdown of Arizona State finally allows me to be optimistic. The Trojans now sit at 7-3 and can win the Pac-12 South with a victory against UCLA next weekend at the Rose Bowl.
Yeah, USC put up 38 points. Sophomore wideout Marqise Lee had his typical 80-yard touchdown grab to go with a couple of long gains on sweeps. But it was the defense — the very defense I belittled last week — that impressed me.
I couldn’t really figure out what it was about what Monte Kiffin’s group did that was out of the ordinary. Most of the same players were in there: senior safety T.J. McDonald, junior cornerback Nickell Robey and senior defensive end Wes Horton all played their normal amounts.
I was stumped until I realized after the second or third sack that USC was blitzing much more than usual.
For the first time in what seemed like years, an opposing quarterback was forced to scramble for his life to avoid getting absolutely smacked.
It has been fairly well chronicled that in their three losses in 2012, the Trojans were largely unable to get pressure on opposing signal callers. And that was made most obvious against Arizona and Oregon, whose up-tempo spread offenses took advantage of quick passes and strong offensive lines to thwart a struggling USC secondary.
But Saturday proved to be a different story. Sophomore linebacker Hayes Pullard applied pressure. Sophomore Dion Bailey did, too. Linebackers and defensive backs were flying around the offensive backfield, making plays on Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly that led to three interceptions, two of which came in the fourth quarter. For the first time all season, the Trojans held a spread offense to under 30 points.
Is it possible the Trojans have figured it out?
Have they realized that the key to beating the spread offense isn’t to sit back and give them small receptions, but to be aggressive and force the offense into mistakes? It certainly seems that way. And it’s a good thing, too. Because, as the cliche goes, there is no rest for the weary.
The Bruins run a spread offense and do a pretty decent job of doing so. They feature running back Johnathan Franklin, whose 1,270 rushing yards lead the conference, and a freshman quarterback named Brett Hundley who is rewriting UCLA record books. UCLA averages 37 points per game and, if not handled properly, could give a beleaguered USC defense problems.
The following week, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame come to town. No, their offense isn’t exactly striking fear into the hearts of opponents currently, as they have been held to 21 points or less in six of their 10 contests and average a mediocre 26.7 points per game. But nonetheless, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly also runs a version of the spread offense and they feature a mobile quarterback who can make things happen in Everett Golson.
With these spread offense teams coming up, maybe some blitzes from Monte and Co. wouldn’t be such an awful idea. It sure seemed to work against the Sun Devils on Saturday. Kelly looked flustered during the latter portions of the game and Arizona State couldn’t find any sort of rhythm in the second half of the game because of the pressure.
Because the spread offense relies heavily on the quarterback, it is crucial to apply pressure by whatever means necessary. Clearly, the front four weren’t doing it against Arizona and Oregon; Matt Scott and Marcus Mariota moved around and gave themselves time to throw. But when rushed, quarterbacks make mistakes. Interceptions are thrown. Fumbles happen. Generally speaking, putting pressure on an opposing quarterback is always a good thing.
Clearly, the team had success blitzing the spread offense against the Sun Devils. Why not do it against UCLA and Notre Dame, too? Base defenses weren’t working against other spread offenses. They might as well give it a shot. And if things go well and the Trojans win next week, they’ll likely get to blitz another spread offense in the Pac-12 title game: Oregon.
Who knows? Maybe with pressure on him, Mariota doesn’t throw four touchdowns. Maybe the Ducks make some mistakes. Anything is possible when an offense is disturbed from its normal rhythm. And that is exactly what USC has to do from here on out against these spread offenses: force them to be faster than they want to be, no matter how fast they normally are.
If the Trojans can pressure their next few opponents like they did Arizona State, they will win out. I can almost guarantee it. Whether they decide to do that, however, won’t be known until game day against the Bruins.
One thing is certain, though: With both teams winning this weekend, Saturday’s matchup with UCLA just became more intriguing than anyone would’ve anticipated before the season began.
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