Giving up 730 yards to Oregon and 88 points over the course of six quarters is not a good look for an defensive coordinator like USC’s Monte Kiffin. But for as dire of a situation as many made the Trojans’ defense to be in following a 62-51 loss to the Ducks a week ago, the reality is that Kiffin’s defense has played more of a role in USC’s seven victories than their three losses.
Throughout the first half of the season, the story surrounding the Trojans on the field was how good the defensive line had played despite a lack of expectations and how inconsistent the offense was. The defense as a whole was creating turnovers, Morgan Breslin was the team’s MVP on defense and the Trojans finally looked like they had a defense that was on par with the Pete Carroll-era.
Players were happy with the defense, the Kiffins were happy, the media was impressed and the fans were happy. The defense was sorta good.
It was the defense that controlled the game against Cal when the offense was one dimensional, and it was the defense that came up with well-timed turnovers against Washington in the second half to bail out an under-performing offense. In the loss to Stanford, the Trojans held the Cardinal for three quarters, which gave USC’s offense plenty of time to get themselves going before Stanford wore them down.
Through the first seven games, USC’s first-team defense only gave up three touchdowns twice, while the Trojans couldn’t score 30 points on three occasions. Again, it was the defense that carried them to a 6-1 record.
Then, two dreadful weeks against spread offenses suddenly changed the perception of Monte Kiffin from being a revitalized genius to an aged man who was formerly-deemed wise.
Sure, 1,300 yards in a two-week stretch warrants it’s share of valid criticisms, but when you consider the potent offenses the Trojans played, in addition to the moves Kiffin has made on defense in his time at USC, it’s not exactly the most thought out decision to call for his retirement so hastily.
Consider that USC’s best defensive player, linebacker Dion Bailey, would be a safety stuck splitting time with Drew McAllister and Gerald Bowman if it wasn’t for Kiffin’s preference for having speedy, undersized linebackers that can defend the pass while being quick enough to collapse against the run.
It’s the kind of defense that is structurally designed to defeat the spread, and while it mightily imploded against Arizona and Oregon, it’s worked before, as seen with the Trojans’ victory in Eugene last November, and on Saturday against Arizona State.
While ASU’s version of the spread is much slower than the Ducks’ blur, it shared enough schematic similarities to challenge the Troy in the same way.
But against the Sun Devils, the Trojans forced sophomore quarterback Taylor Kelly into difficult situations all afternoon and eliminated the balance of the ASU running game, as they finished the game averaging just two yards per carry. Compared to the 426 yards that Oregon put on the ground seven days prior, it was a vast improvement.
Then there was fact that the Trojans held ASU’s best offensive weapon, freshman D.J. Foster, to just 10 yards of total offense, while tallying seven sacks for an astounding total of 56 yards.
Quite simply, it was a repeat performance of the Trojans’ early season demolition of Cal in which they pressured Zach Maynard until the cows came home, wrapping up him for nine sacks and keeping the Bears out of the endzone. Statistically speaking, it was an identical performance, as both Cal and ASU put up exactly 250 yards of total offense, with 77 and 71 yards of that being on the ground, respectively.
For a defense that was exposed so dramatically of late, the Trojans needed the sound performance against Arizona State to not only prove that they could rebound, but to show that for as skilled as the Trojans are offensively, they’re still a team that lives and dies on defense, both in a good way and a bad way, as seen with the results to date.
In many ways, the first half was awful for the USC offense, yet the defense hunkered down, corrected their mistakes from ASU’s opening drive to bail out Barkley and company’s flat first half and get back their confidence going into the most difficult stretch of season. That’s what good defenses and well-coached defenses do.
Maybe #FireMonte will be shelved on Twitter for a little while.