“Every Rose Has Its Thorn” Pt. 2: The Secondary


Yesterday, we looked at one of the thorns digging into the side of USC football, and today we will look at another big one: the USC secondary.

For two consecutive seasons, the secondary has been the most questionable unit on the field. Because last year was the first season of the fabled Monte Kiffin defense, one could almost give USC a pass for their subpar performance. Adjusting to a new coaching staff is never easy, and the growing pains were felt across the board. But the window of accepting rookie mistakes has long closed, and the secondary—at least statistically, anyway—isn’t looking much better. So, what’s the excuse now?

Answer: There is none.

To be fair, this USC defense has all the potential in the world to be like the great, untouchable force that was the ancient city of Troy. Right now though, they are playing more of the role of the Trojan horse, meaning that they are too easily allowing opponents to infiltrate their ranks and get to the endzone. While giving up big plays have essentially ceased to exist—teams are averaging 10.4 yards per completion, down from 12.1 last season—the secondary still struggles to shut down spread offensives effectively. Being that ALL of the opponents USC will face after the bye are spread offenses (with the exception of Stanford, who runs a pro style-west coast hybrid), this is a problem.

Obviously, limiting big plays is a huge step in the right direction for a team that lost 3 games because it couldn’t do that, but allowing an opponent to steadily charge down the field by way of consecutive short, quick passes is no better.The problem is, the system itself is one that’s going to be abused by a west coast offense that utilizes said quick passes. The Tampa 2 defense is one predicated on the bend, don’t break defensive mindset. The zones are very exploitable outside of the redzone, and rely on the defensive line getting to the quarterback within about a 3.5-second window in order for the defensive backs to be in the best position to make plays. Against lesser opponents, the Tampa 2 is a rubix cube, but against opponents with offensive lines that can stall the defensive line temporarily the Tampa 2 falls apart at the college level. Even in Tampa Bay, once teams figured it out it was rendered useless.

Clearly, something still isn’t working, whether it be the system or the players. But before I get to that, let’s talk about what is working for the secondary.

There are two factors of the USC secondary that Trojan fans can count on to show up, week after week: safety T.J. McDonald and cornerback Nickell Robey. Those two provide the only consistency that the secondary sees. Robey led the team in interceptions last year, just edging out McDonald by grabbing one more INT during the final game against UCLA. Currently, McDonald is the only one of the pair with any picks on the books, but Robey’s effort will not go unnoticed. He is the only corner that does not get burned or confused in long yard situations. Torin Harris and Tony Burnett are both decent in coverage and tackling respectively, but neither of them has shown that they can do both. Harris has come up clutch in key situations to make up for blown assignments, but with Robey, one does not have to worry about them in the first place. McDonald’s presence on the field speaks for itself: he brings the pain with no mercy, and it gets the crown hyped! Count on McDonald and Robey to continue to lead the secondary as they continue to grow and improve.

After the bye, the Trojans will face one more so-so opponent in Cal, and then on to the big guns of Notre Dame, Stanford, Oregon, and U-Dub. The secondary should take this time to figure out how to continue limiting big plays (it’s going to be crucial to contending with Stanford and Oregon) AND shut down spread offenses consistently. If they can do that, Trojan fans will be able to breath just ever so slightly easier. If they don’t, every game is going to be a nail-biter, coming down to the final minutes. But hey, at least it will keep bodies in the seats, right?

Next, we will look at the defense as a whole to see if this season’s Wall of Troy will be able to hold up after the bye.

T-7 days till the next game!

Game on.