Young Trojan defense preps for Stanford

Sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin had five tackles this past Saturday against Fresno State. (Ling Luo/Daily Trojan)

Following a hard-fought win last weekend, featuring a devastating injury to quarterback JT Daniels and lapses on both sides of the ball, the Trojans seem laser-focused as they head into Saturday’s home contest against No. 23 Stanford.

USC’s defense made several elementary mistakes against Fresno State. Senior quarterback Jorge Reyna was able to scramble for 56 yards, go 2 of 2 on fourth down and complete two touchdown passes for Fresno State.

“We had some missed opportunities,” sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga said of the defense. “But the coaches are trying to get us back into position. For us, our ultimate goal is to win games, and so we’ve got to come back next week and do it.”

Winning against Stanford may be a tall order for this young defense, however.

The unit had several holes in the secondary last weekend, and the Stanford offense will not be as forgiving as Fresno State’s. Senior quarterback K.J. Costello completed 80% of his passes last week against Northwestern, posting 152 yards and one touchdown.

“K.J. [Costello]’s stats are incredible,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “He commanded that offense. [Stanford head coach David] Shaw gives him a lot of latitude within it, so he has a lot more experience in game-type situations.”

Experience is exactly what USC’s defense lacks. The young squad, however well-trained and efficient it appears in practice, has not yet taken enough live reps to expect the unexpected. The players and coaches will need to quickly assess Stanford’s strategy in order to prevent the seasoned Costello from making big plays.

“We need to be assignment-perfect and pay attention to detail,” Hufanga said. “If they say 10 yards, it’s 10 yards, not 12. We just need to be on our spot and do our thing.”

This includes exerting pressure on the quarterback. USC’s passive defense allowed Reyna too much time to adjust his strategy and scramble when no one was open. The team only had three sacks last week, when Pendergast and head coach Clay Helton agreed that it could have added four or five more.

Pressure on the quarterback may make the difference between a win and a loss this Saturday. 

“We’ve got to try to get in there and be physical, be nasty,” Hufanga said. “[Stanford] is a big, physical team, but they can also bring speed whenever they want.”

The Trojans will also need to prepare for the possibility of facing junior quarterback Davis Mills, Stanford’s second-stringer. Costello is currently undergoing concussion protocol, and the decision of whether he can play this weekend will not be released until Friday. His official status is questionable.

Mills’ presence in the game could present a blessing or a curse for the Trojans. 

On one hand, he does not have nearly the level of experience of Costello, having only ever played in one college game. On the other hand, USC has hardly any information on Mills and may not be able to adjust to his playing style.

“[Stanford has] very much a pro-style offense, which we’re not used to playing,” Pendergast said. “The biggest challenge we have is not only the personnel matchups and the formations, but just getting a feel for how they execute their plays.”

Despite the apparent obstacles ahead this weekend, the Trojans remain confident in their ability to contain Stanford. Several defensive players expressed their excitement to take on such a formidable Pac-12 opponent.

“I’m looking forward to getting my first pick this week,” sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin said. “I have goals set that I’m just hoping I can accomplish.” 

Griffin and the Trojans will take on Stanford at the Coliseum 7:30 p.m. Saturday.