On a gloomy afternoon at Howard Jones Field, the Trojans enjoyed a slightly relaxed practice after a heavy contact Tuesday of play. With the first road game of the season only days away, head coach Clay Helton emphasized third-down efficiency throughout Wednesday’s practice.
“Be perfect,” Helton shouted as his receivers practiced one-on-one drills. “This is the key right here.”
The rivalry has evolved since Helton arrived at USC, becoming one of the fiercest and earliest tests of each season for the team. Ahead of this year’s game, Helton reminisced on the classic battles he’s witnessed before — the triple-overtime loss, Andre Heidari’s 53-yard field goal, Andrew Luck’s last minute march down the field. After the pair faced off twice last season, he says that the rivalry has only grown stronger.
“It has always been a close game,” Helton said. “It’s been some of my favorite memories and some of my favorite heart breaks. It just always seems like an extremely physical contest. Both teams take a lot of pride into this game.”
Helton adjusts for Stanford attack
The defense shone as the first team closed out practice with a two-minute drill. Linebackers junior Jordan Iosefa and senior Porter Gustin forced freshman quarterback JT Daniels to backpedal into a sack to force a third-down situation, and cornerback Greg Johnson snagged a pick to close out practice. The sideline roared as the redshirt freshman crashed onto his back, celebrating the play, as Helton looked on with a grin.
Against a team like Stanford, consistent defensive pressure will be key to grind down major offensive threats such as running back Bryce Love and quarterback K.J. Costello. Team captain Cam Smith emphasized the importance of creating long third down situations to force Stanford to push through every snap.
“They’re more multidimensional than they have been,” Smith said. “They like to get the ball to the perimeter with their big guys. We always do a really good job of preparing against these guys. This game always means something more to us.”
Love, who enters the season as the clear favorite for the Heisman, will be the first priority for the defense to shut down. But after flourishing last season as a sophomore, Costello also provides an arsenal of skill in the air, creating a dual threat for the defense to address. The secondary dedicated a solid period of practice to drills guarding corner routes, which Costello typically bombs 25 or 35 yards deep.
Stanford also boasts a muscly offensive line, and Helton emphasized that the interior of the defensive line will be put to the test to apply pressure on Costello and plug Love at the line. Players who weigh over 300 pounds, such as Brandon Pili, will be key in balancing out the battle in the trenches.
Tight end Josh Falo provided a bright spot on the sidelines for the Trojans on Wednesday, staying out of pads but practicing non-contact drills on his own as he continues rehabilitating a hamstring injury. Falo looked comfortable running sprints and practicing cuts in the open field, and Helton feels optimistic that he will be back to full speed soon. Center Toa Lobendahn also continues to look strong after returning to practice on Tuesday.
After struggling to finish practice on Tuesday, defensive tackle Brandon Pili stuck to the sidelines with a wrist injury. His wrist remains tightly taped, but Helton said he expects the sophomore to play on Saturday against Stanford.
Greg Johnson returned after sitting out with a 24-hour bug yesterday, but Isaiah Pola-Mao sat out with the same illness. Safety Bubba Bolden remains out of contention with an unaddressed suspension, and Helton had no comment on the sophomore’s status during Wednesday’s practice.