After arguably the worst performance ever by a team ranked No. 1 in the preseason, there were bound to be major changes to the program after USC’s shockingly mediocre 2012 season.
Many of the Trojan faithful were calling for USC head coach Lane Kiffin to be fired after overseeing a campaign that yielded the most losses by a preseason No. 1 in NCAA history, but had to settle for the resignation of his father Monte.
The hiring of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast away from California didn’t exactly quell the concerns of USC fans, given the fact that the Golden Bears’ defense actually gave up more points per game (33.1) than the Trojans (24.3) last year.
But look further into the numbers and study the personnel on USC’s roster and there’s reason to believe that Pendergast’s 5-2 scheme might slow the roll of spread offenses currently in wide usage across the Pac-12.
For starters, California allowed the fewest yards per game in the conference under Pendergast in both 2010 and 2011.
“When I looked at all the candidates and saw what [Pendergast] did in a very short time, I thought that was a very big part of the hire,” Kiffin said. “We obviously didn’t want something that took years to develop; we wanted something that would work now.”
And even though the Bears regressed in their third year under Pendergast, there were flashes of greatness that suggested that his scheme could trigger major headaches for opponents, even when facing more talented offenses. The same UCLA squad that put up 38 points on USC last year turned the ball over six times against the Bears in a 43-17 rout.
”We want to be a turnover-oriented defense,” Pendergast said. “That’s something we harp on every day, something we’re trying to create a lot of.”
USC fans will be happy to hear Pendergast has already shown he can quickly install a defense that can stop the vaunted attack of Oregon.
In 2010, Pendergast’s first year on the job in the Bay Area, California held the Ducks to 15 points, and only one offensive touchdown, in a narrow 2-point loss. That’s one of only three times in the past three years the Ducks have been held to less than 27 points.
The other two teams that pulled off the feat? Last year’s Rose Bowl champions (Stanford) and 2010’s BCS champions (Auburn).
The Trojans are confident that they can become a defense with a similar pedigree this year.
“I feel like we have the personnel that if we can give tenacity and get after the ball, it doesn’t matter what offense we play,” redshirt senior Devon Kennard, who now plays as an outside linebacker after playing at defensive end before Pendergast’s arrival, said. “I think one of the best things about this [scheme] is that it reignited every player on the defense. It puts everyone in position to make plays.”
Pendergast’s scheme aims to rack up turnovers by incorporating a hefty amount of blitzing from linebackers combined with tight man coverage in the secondary, as opposed to the more conservative, predominantly zone-coverage system previously incorporated by the elder Kiffin.
“[Pendergast] is a lot more aggressive [as a] playcaller, and we just try to dictate what the offense can do to us,” junior linebacker Lamar Dawson said. “When we go man coverage, that means the ball is coming out fast, because we’re putting a lot of pressure on the quarterback, so that gives us more opportunities for interceptions.”
Players on USC’s offense quickly took notice of the hectic pace Pendergast has instilled in the defense.
“We see them every day in practice. They’ve been relentless,” redshirt sophomore quarterback Max Wittek said. “They’ve been like that all summer and even in the spring, so that was good to see.”
Kiffin and Pendergast have been reluctant to name starters, insisting that all 11 spots on defense are up for grabs.
Several previously unheralded players, such as redshirt sophomore linebacker Anthony Sarao and senior safety Demetrius Wright, have unexpectedly shined and made these decisions tougher for the coaching staff.
“It’s been a great transition,” redshirt junior linebacker Hayes Pullard said. “They’ve simplified this defense for us guys to go out there and play fast and play to the best of our ability.”
If Pendergast’s 5-2 system is indeed the catalyst that brings out the talent littered across USC’s defense, it might not make much of a difference which of USC’s many 4- and 5-star recruits claim the starting gigs.
For the first time since Kiffin took over at Troy, USC’s defense might be more of a sure thing than its offense. And Trojan fans who witnessed last season know that this is not necessarily a bad thing.