USC Football: What went wrong defensively vs. Western Michigan?

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

What went wrong defensively for USC Football vs. Western Michigan? Head coach Clay Helton broke down three core issues for the Trojans.

Of all the things that left observers of USC Football’s 49-31 victory over Western Michigan feeling uneasy, the performance of the Trojan defense took the cake.

Clancy Pendergast’s defense gave up 31 points to the Broncos. Most worryingly, WMU bruised their way to 263 yards on the ground.

What went wrong? Head coach Clay Helton pointed to three major problems after USC’s Tuesday practice.

First, alignment errors.

In the first half in particular, USC’s defensive front lined up wrong at times, whether because they weren’t getting lined up quickly enough or because adjustments weren’t being properly called from the middle linebacker position, where sophomore Jordan Iosefa made his first start due to the first-half suspension of Cameron Smith.

Second, gap control.

In part because of alignment issues, Helton said USC’s defenders lost gap control too often against Western Michigan. The Bronco offensive linemen were allowed to hit their gaps quicker than the Trojans could get there.

“I don’t think [USC’s defenders] were overwhelmed,” Helton said. “When they did line up right and did contain their gap, it was good. And when they didn’t, it didn’t look so good.”

Third, tackling.

USC’s open-field tackling was poor, with players failing to wrap up properly.

“You combine any of those three things, it’s going to make for a hard day,” Helton said. “We let all three of them happen.”

In a way, it was a perfect storm for USC’s defense.

It was the first game of the season, when sloppy tackling is usually a talking point after an offseason of limited live action.

They were facing an unfamiliar offense run by a new coaching staff.

They were without an All-American candidate in Smith, the midfield general of the defense.

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“You have some guys that are going out there for the first time. They’re making calls for the first time and plays are going faster than maybe they go in practice sometimes. And you make a call and it wasn’t right. Or you made the call and one of your D-linemen didn’t line up in the right gap,” Helton explained.

“Those are things that happen in the first game and things that we’ve got to be able to clean up very quickly.”

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With No. 14 Stanford and their dangerous, dynamic rushing attack on the horizon, the Trojans can’t afford another defensive hiccup. As much damage as LeVante Bellamy, Jaumauri Bogan and the Western Michigan rushing attack leveled, the Cardinal’s two-headed backfield of Bryce Love and Cameron Scarlett could double it.

Emphasizing proper tackling technique in practice this week could go a long way, with the rust cleared off somewhat after one game of action.

Having Smith back to handle the defensive calls and alignments from the first snap should also help solve some of those organizational issues.

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More than anything, the pressure is now on both USC’s defensive coaching staff and players to prove that they can replicate last year’s steady improvement on a more hasty schedule.

Stanford certainly won’t wait for the Trojans to sort out their defensive issues.