After three consecutive weeks of piling up the defensive stats against the Pac-12’s weakest offenses, the Trojans will have their work cut out for them as they head into Tucson to face the Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats lead the conference in yards per game with 548.7 yards each contest, which is also the 5th best per game total in FBS.
In order to slow this Rich Rodriguez spread offense, the Trojans will need to be stout up front. It will be important for Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron to keep the front four fresh. Rotations will be key, but they will be difficult to make with the Wildcats running a no huddle, up-tempo offense.
The Wildcats will aim to tire out the Trojans’ defense with a blistering pace. I had a coach that used to tell us when he was running the puke out of us, that “fatigue will make you a coward.” Fatigue can also lead to mental lapses and mental lapses will lead to defenders being out of position. These are things that the Trojan defense can ill afford.
Morgan Breslin and company must be able to play the run while on their way to rush the passer. This is no small task.
The Wildcats do an excellent job of running (3rd in the conference) and passing (1st in the conference). It will be important to put pressure on Matt Scott and put a fence up on the Wildcats’ running game, putting them in situations where it is difficult to get the line to gain.
The Wildcats are coming off of a game against the Washington Huskies where they ran the ball 49 times and only threw 22 times. They still managed to put up 533 yards of total offense, pounding the Huskies for 277 yards on the ground. This could be a big part of the game plan against the Trojans, especially if Rodriguez has looked at the Stanford film. They will certainly want to limit the opportunities of Matt Barkley & Co. by chewing up the clock.
Lamar Dawson and the defense will need to identify formations, personnel groupings, and tendencies when these things present themselves. What do the Wildcats like to do when the ball is on the hash? In the middle of the field? On second and short? On third and long? When Austin Hill is not in the slot? When the Wildcats give a bunch formation? When a receiver goes in motion? These keys will help them diagnose the play that is coming and shut it down.
While it is going to be imperative for the defensive line to get pressure on Scott, it will be equally important for the secondary, which by extension includes the linebackers, to hold up in coverage. The corners must be aggressive at the point of attack, causing Scott to hold the ball a half a second longer. The linebackers must read Scott’s eyes in zone and get proper drops. The safeties can’t get sucked in by play fakes which will prevent them from getting over the top of a route.
Dion Bailey will most likely match-up with Hill in the slot. Arizona will be looking to create a match-up problem with Hill’s huge frame and Bailey will need to be up for the challenge as Arizona will probably go to Hill early and often.
Josh Shaw and Torin Harris can’t be a weak link opposite Nickell Robey. There will be times when they may end up on an island and the pass rush or blitz doesn’t get home. They can’t give up the inside release, they can’t get lost in coverage, and they must be physical with and re-route the receiver.
It is imperative for the entire defense to be disciplined. They can’t extend drives for an offense of this caliber by getting flagged for penalties, especially personal fouls. The defense must also swarm the ball, wrapping up on tackles to eliminate yards after catch. They must disguise coverages and confuse Scott, show one thing pre-snap and do something totally different at the snap of the ball.
This game will be a huge challenge for the Trojans’ defense and will be a great measuring stick as they get into the toughest part of their schedule. Over the next four games, they play all four of the top offenses in the conference. Teams that can all move the ball and can all put points on the board.
If it is still true that defenses win championships, this will be the starting point for the Trojans to truly play like a championship defense.
Tune in to catch the Trojans play the Wildcats on Saturday at 12:30p PT. The game will be televised either on ABC or ESPN2 depending on your location. You can also follow us on Twitter for in game analysis @ReignOfTroy.