USC Football Practice Notes: Third downs critical on Stanford Wednesday

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

USC football was back at Howard Jones Field for their Stanford Wednesday practice with an emphasis on third downs and keeping hold of possessions.

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USC football’s Wednesday practice ahead of the Stanford game put the focus on third downs and the importance of each possession.

“Every possession is going to count,” head coach Clay Helton said after the Trojans’ outing in shorts and shells on Howard Jones Field.

Third downs are always an important factor on both sides of the ball, but Helton drew special attention in light of Stanford’s tempo. The Cardinal can take possessions away by killing the clock, reducing teams to between 60 to 75 plays when they can normally count on getting 80 plays on the board.

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The more third down conversions USC’s defense gives up, the longer Stanford will be able to hold the ball.

“All of the sudden the play number count goes down, the opportunities go down and the points go down,” said Helton.

USC wasn’t spectacular at holding Stanford off on third down last year, but they did limit the Cardinal to 50 percent, which was good enough.

Of course, third downs are also important on offense. In last year’s September meeting, the Trojans went 10-of-12 on that critical down. No wonder it was arguably USC’s best performance of the season.

On that night at the Coliseum, Helton says the Trojans were efficient in their first down defense, making it hard for Stanford on third-and-long. They played clean without turning the ball over on offense. They put themselves in third-and-short situations, converted and finished drives.

They’ll need to find a similar groove on Saturday to replicate that performance, especially after going just 7-of-16 against UNLV.

“To me it’s about playing clean football and really how good are you on down and distances,” Helton said.

Practice Standouts

  1. Greg Johnson… Johnson intercepted JT Daniels to end the two-minute drill in the final stage of practice.
  2. Palaie Gaoteote… The freshman linebacker returned from injury this week and was given a sizable vote of confidence taking first team reps at Cameron Smith’s linebacker spot for a segment. He came to USC with a lot of hype and has lived up to it so far, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.
  3. JT Daniels+Tyler Vaughns… The quarterback and receiver stayed behind well after practice to work on their chemistry, which was off in Game 1.

Notes and Tibits

  • First team defensive backs… Greg Johnson sat out Tuesday’s practice with a virus, but returned on Wednesday to take first team reps at cornerback over Isaiah Langley. At safety, Isaiah Pola-Mao was out with a virus, moving Talanoa Hufanga up into the first team next to Marvell Tell.
  • Status quo on Bolden, Ross… Helton had no update on the Bubba Bolden situation, nearly a week since it was announced that the starting safety would be unavailable for the UNLV game. While dealing with a personal matter, the sophomore is not expected to play again this week. It’s also status quo for safety Ykili Ross, who left the team during the final week of Fall Camp with the intention of transferring after the fall. “Right now his status is still the same. He’s not on our active roster,” Helton said.
  • Practicing in shells… Why doesn’t USC practice in full pads on Wednesday? It has to do with “leg weariness,” according to Helton. The idea is to practice in shorts as a means of keeping players fresh for the weekend. “I can’t keep them off the ground anyways,” he said, noting physicality in practice even when they’re not suited all the way up.
  • What does thud mean? One player who keeps his physical nature in practice whether in full pads or not is linebacker Palaie Gaoteote. Helton joked that his freshman linebacker “doesn’t know what thud is,” dishing out some hits on Wednesday.
  • Interior importance… With Stanford on the mind, Helton highlighted how the importance of USC’s interior defensive line has been an emphasis for the Trojans in recent years. In order to face up with the Cardinals 300-to-320-pound linemen, USC has targeted defensive tackles of 300 or more pounds like Jay Tufele and Brandon Pili while also looking to develop players like Liam Jimmons to play at that size as well. “Those interior guys are very very important for us,” Helton said, pointing to the ability to hold the point of attack while also bringing athleticism to the table.
  • Rivalry memories… The Stanford rivalry holds a special place in Helton’s heart, having taken part in nearly a decade of tight contests. It’s been some of my favorite memories and some of my favorite heart breaks,” Helton said. He specifically referenced being part of a triple overtime loss, a late Andre Heidari kick to win and Andrew Luck’s game winning drive in 2010.
  • Can’t carry losses… The early rivalry game can have a major impact on the season for both teams, Helton said. When USC needed an 8-1 conference record to win the South last year, beating Stanford can mean everything. On the flip side, losing to Stanford early in 2016 kept the Trojans out of the title game despite going 7-2 in conference. “You can’t look up and have many losses,” he said.
  • Bringing your A-game… On Tuesday, Helton told the team Stanford would be the toughest team they face all year. He reiterated the importance of playing up to the Cardinal’s level on Wednesday: “You want to make sure that every time you play a Pac-12 opponent you bring your A-game and you better bring your A-game versus Stanford or you’ll get your butt beat.”
  • No redshirt travel advantage… Though new redshirt rules will allow the Trojans to use more players in general this year, the change won’t impact the number of players USC can bring on the road. The Pac-12 still limits teams to 70 players for road trips, Helton explained, though the Big Ten recently raised their limit to 74.