The sense of deflation that followed the Trojans during their slow season opening is nowhere to be found now, as players took to Howard Jones Field on Wednesday looking to keep moving up with a win over Arizona in Tucson this weekend.
Head coach Clay Helton continued to discuss the playmaking ability of redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, as the mobile signal caller has impressed with his ability to invent while scrambling since taking over the starting job.
“That’s something that comes when you have an athletic kid back there who can move around and create,” Helton said, speaking about Darnold’s improvised fumble-touchdown last weekend. “We’ve created some first downs because of it.”
If USC looks comfortable when things break down in-game, it’s because the Trojans get a great deal of practice on scramble drills during the week. Helton credited the defense’s ability to get pressure on Darnold as the reason the young quarterback has quickly learned to remain productive on the run.
“It comes about when you’re going good [players] on good [players],” Helton said. “We’re getting them naturally, and he’s doing a really nice job of maneuvering around in the pocket and knowing when to break contain.”
A Wrinkle in the Pass Rush
Another freshman making strides as the season progresses is defensive end Oluwole Betiku Jr., who head coach Clay Helton said would take on an increased role in the coming weeks.
“We’re playing these teams that … could play anywhere from 80-100 plays in a game. We need that third-down pass rush, and [Betiku] gives it to us,” he said. “We saw the light click on for him over the last two weeks, and we’ve decided to pull the trigger and allow him to help us on third down — and he’ll mix in hopefully on some special teams.”
And while the Trojan coaching staff hopes Betiku will terrorize whichever quarterback starts for Arizona on Saturday, Helton insisted the young lineman would be eased into the game plan.
“Even though he looks like a 30-year-old man, he’s a true freshman, and he’s learning a pro-style system with [defensive coordinator] Clancy [Pendergast],” Helton laughed. “We haven’t given him the entire package — he’s not entirely ready for first and second down — but to be able to cut him loose … we think is advantageous.”
Though the Trojans are unsure who will be at quarterback for the Wildcats, they have been dissecting Arizona’s offensive tendencies throughout the week to prepare defensively. But whether it’s Brandon Dawkins or Khalil Tate under center this weekend, USC knows it will be up against a speed demon.
“Electric,” Helton said of both players. “These two guys are elite runners in our mind.”
Not only are Wildcat quarterbacks fast, but they also aren’t afraid to show it, as Arizona is only behind Heisman candidate Lamar Jackson and Louisville in team quarterback rushing yards. This creates many big-play opportunities, which Pendergast was on-guard for during practice.
“They’re very unique in the way they use their run-pass options with the vertical passing game, which obviously gives people a lot of problems, and they execute very well,” he said. “They’re very high-level, they’ve been in that system for a few years now, and they know it well, and you can see by the way they execute.”