When USC football is on defense
Last week against Washington State, the Trojans were everywhere. They demolished Wazzu’s offense and shattered the confidence of freshman quarterback Jayden de Laura.
On the first couple drives, USC looked as if they would be susceptible to long rushes once again, however, a couple of shoestring tackles kept the longest WSU rush to 14 yards.
After forcing a turnover on downs and a punt to open the night, de Laura found Talanoa Hufanga and Olaijah Griffin for a pair of interceptions on back-to-back defensive plays. He later fumbled an attempted handoff and was ultimately replaced by backup Gunner Cruz.
The Trojans had four sacks, three from Nick Figueroa and one from Hufanga, and they only allowed 4.6 yards per completion when de Laura was in the game.
It’s apparent that this defensive line is going to cause havoc one way or another. If the opponent focuses on Marlon Tuipulotu, Drake Jackson and Figueroa will have a field day and vice-versa. The linebacking situation has improved (although it would be good to get Ralen Goforth back), and the secondary consistently maintains excellent coverage with Griffin and free safety Isaiah Pola-Mao shutting down opponents through the air.
Continuing with the theme of offensive inconsistency, after two seasons of being all over the map, Chip Kelly’s offense is shaping into the type of unit UCLA fans expected when he was hired.
Kelly’s spread offense out of heavy pistol and shotgun sets has gashed Pac-12 opponents every week. The Bruins average 227 yards per game on the ground and can create confusion for a defense with the varying styles of rushes they use.
The Bruins’ top two runners, Demetric Felton and Brittain Brown, average 5.2 and 6.3 yards per carry respectively, and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson has 30 rushes for 242 yards to his name.
Through the air, the Bruins remain an average to below-average team, largely due to DTR’s accuracy issues. The junior has only hit on 57.8 percent of his passes despite the team’s rushing success, but he has reduced his turnovers down to three, which is a step in the right direction.
The Bruins’ most explosive pass-catcher is Greg Dulcich, a sophomore tight end, which is a classic occurrence in a Kelly offense. He has 16 catches for 312 yards and two touchdowns on the year.
How they matchup
Despite vastly different approaches to their offensive schemes, these two teams are similar in the results they produce.
Kelly’s offense relies on the zone-read and triple-option concepts to get his runners in space, and they’re dangerous until the field shrinks or they have an “and-short” situation to convert. UCLA is lauded for being more physical this season, but when the chips are down, they struggle to move the ball in short-yardage, ranking in the back half of the FBS in those situations.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Trojans are susceptible to explosive plays on the ground, but that has improved after a forced shakeup of the linebackers. Last week, Hufanga was thrust into an inside linebacker role and the dynamic junior excelled at stopping the run and disrupted the throwing lanes for de Laura.
Plus, the Trojans’ are excellent in short-yardage situations and are solid in pass defense with a proclivity for forcing turnovers. Meanwhile, DTR struggles to throw downfield with any accuracy.
The biggest weakness the Trojans have against UCLA is their ability to stop the quarterback run. In the first game of the year, Jayden Daniels ran wild on USC for 111 yards, and even Grant Gunnell had to be spied by Todd Orlando to prevent the less-than-fleet-footed quarterback from hurting USC on the ground. If the Bruins want to win, DTR will need to live up to his 8.1 yards per carry average.
Realistically, this matchup comes down to three things: Can UCLA generate explosive touchdowns on the ground, can DTR complete enough passes without turning the ball over to spread USC out, and can DTR extend drives with his legs to get the ball back in his running back’s hands?