USC vs. ASU Report Card: Grading the Trojans Defense


Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

USC came into Saturday night with the fourth-best defense in the country, while leading the FBS in sacks and tackles for loss. Sunday morning, that’s all a distant memory.

The Trojans gave up a school-worst 62 points, which ironically ties the amount given up to Oregon last year under Monte Kiffin, and ultimately prompting his departure to Dallas.

Needless to say, it wasn’t a good night for new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast and his boys, and it won’t be pretty on the report card following a 612-yard output against them. Here’s the ugly marks:

Defensive line: D

For the first time since last year’s loss to Arizona, the Trojans failed to record a sack. On top of that, the USC front seven, which had allowed 30 rushing yards in the first two games and entered Saturday’s game averaging 59.25 yards allowed on the ground, gave up a whopping 261 yards to ASU.

Perhaps it was the Trojans’ most productive quality that let them down, as their attacking style of defense led to defensive breakdowns as the defensive line over-pursued, allowing for ASU to get to the second level quickly. Taylor Kelly’s 40 yard jaunt was a perfect example, as he got in behind the defense after squeaking through USC’s pass rush.

Any time that a defense has four players rush for 50-yards against them, it’s not going to be a pretty day on the scoreboard or on the report card. What saves Ed Orgeron’s bunch from a fail however, is the hustle shown following the breakdowns.

Despite getting beat, the defensive linemen, and Leonard Williams in particular, routinely ran down the backs that beat them off the edge, or at least forced a tackle with their pursuit.

Linebackers: Fail

Throughout the game, the Trojans were giving up the mid-range and deep middle of the field, which resulted from the linebackers pinching and struggling to read slot receivers, such as ASU’s tight end/Y-receiver Chris Coyle.

The breakdowns against the pass left wide open gaps on the field for Coyle and company, who carved up the USC defense. Coyle caught five catches for 87 yards, with his game-long 35-yard catch coming right over the middle.

Plus, the biggest play of the game, a 74-yard touchdown pass from Taylor Kelly to D.J. Foster appeared to be a result of Lamar Dawson playing up, and struggling to recognize Foster’s route until he was already by him and in behind Hayes Pullard.

Secondary: Fail

The USC secondary is the only unit on the team without a truly-dedicated position coach, and it’s really starting to show. Whether it be inexperience, a lack of confidence or a gaffe in coaching, the defensive backs are constantly on their back foot in coverage and reacting to plays, instead of defending them proactively.

On multiple plays, the cornerbacks were beaten down the sideline while preparing to make the tackle, as opposed to defending the pass, disrupting the ASU wideouts and playing the ball.

It gave ASU an extra step in the passing game and the result was Taylor Kelly’s best game of the year against an FBS team, as he was 23-of-34 for 351 yards with a passer rating of 177.6.

Coaching: D

This was Clancy Pendergast’s biggest face-to-face meeting with adversity so far, and the test didn’t end so well. While Utah State had a no-huddle touchdown drive that put the Trojans on their back foot and allowed the Aggies to score with ease last week, USC responded immediately.

On Saturday night, they appeared to do the same thing in the first quarter, after responding to a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to start the game, with three straight forced punts, giving up 52 yards on the next 14 plays.

But from that point on and especially after halftime, the Trojans just couldn’t stop ASU. Adjustments weren’t made or countered, and there wasn’t an answer for a quick-tempo Sun Devil offense that made the Trojans think on their feet, react slowly and over-pursue to over-correct.

Those critiques mainly fall on coaching, and any time a defense allows 600+ yards and 62 points, especially coming off dominating performances, it’s probably a sign of flaws in the game plan.

That makes it all the more shocking, given just how dominant the USC defense had been in the first four games, while playing a well-coached, attacking brand of defense.

The bottomline for Pendergast now, is that now’s when his best coaching will have to be done, as he’ll have to find a way to elude the confidence issues of last year’s defense, while preparing for stiffer and trickier offensive foes on the schedule than ASU, like Stanford and UCLA.

It begins with Arizona and he’s got a dozen days to rediscover the defense we thought we knew, or the future narrative of USC’s stout defense will surely be penned as a myth.

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Now it’s your turn. What do you think about the defensive performance? As bad or worse than it looked on paper? Grade the Trojans defense in our poll and leave your say below in the comments.

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