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UCLA vs. Southern Cal Defensive Preview: Is Their Defense a Liability?

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A Young Trojan defense may be the key to a win for UCLA.

NCAA Football: Southern California at Washington
Don’t want to see celebrations like this on Saturday.
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

After writing the offensive preview, I figured all hope was lost. Sam Darnold is looking more and more like a Heisman candidate by the week, and we’re still struggling to even put together a decent run game. Admittedly, aside from watching a few Pac 12 games, I have avoided doing any research on Southern Cal until this week. This game always gives me butterflies and I usually end up needing to see a chiropractor after the game because my neck and shoulders have been so tense for three and a half straight hours. After looking further into this unit, I discovered that although the Trojan offense has been extremely successful as of late, their defense is still young and inconsistent. USC runs a 3-4 defensive scheme, and has some holes and liabilities that the Bruins will hopefully be able to exploit in the match up.

Defensive Line

According to a Los Angeles Times article from October, Southern Cal head coach Clay Helton “repeatedly mentioned [before the season started] the defensive line as his biggest concern”. The line is young, and lacks any upperclassmen with playing time at USC to take on leadership roles and guide players on and off the field. There were issues early in the season, and the Trojans were unable to record a sack against either Stanford or Utah. They started to see success against Arizona State, harassing Manny Wilkins and dropped ASU’s average yards per play from 4.3 to 2.1.

On the line, redshirt Sophomore Malik Dorton switched from outside linebacker to defensive end in 2015, and is now listed as the starting defensive tackle. He has played in six games and recorded nine tackles. Senior Stevie Tu'ikolovatu is playing at nose tackle and transferred to Southern Cal this year after receiving his bachelor’s degree from Utah. He has recorded 38 tackles so far this season. Sophomore defensive tackle Rasheem Green has 40 tackles and 4.5 sacks this year, and is becoming a star on the Trojan line. He is a born pass rusher, especially against spread offenses, and even though he was a five star recruit out of high school, has had to learn that raw talent isn’t everything. He has become a student of football, learning that if you want to make it, especially in the pros, you have to watch film and learn from your mistakes. He has taken to watching an extra hour of film every evening. He is part of the reason that ASU saw their stats drop so much in week five.

This line can be inconsistent due to their youth, but they can also be extremely disruptive. They’ve learned on the job this year, but have seen more and more success each week. With a year’s worth of bragging rights on the line, I’d expect these guys to really bring it together on Saturday. Of course, the same holds true for UCLA. It will come down to who wants it more.

Linebackers

Linebackers Osa Masina and Don Hill are still suspended, pending an investigation into a sexual assault claim by a 19-year-old Los Angeles woman, although neither has been formally charged with a crime. In their absence, senior Michael Hutchings has recorded 57 tackles so far this season and is one of only two upperclassmen linebackers on the starting lineup. Junior Uchenna Nwosu has 47 tackles this year, including a whopping 10 against Colorado, 2.5 total sacks, and an additional forced fumble against Cal. Sophomore Cameron Smith was limited in 2016 spring practice while recovering from 2015 knee surgery, as well as rehabbing a shoulder sprain. He doesn’t seem to be suffering much with the 66 tackles he has racked up, including a career high 15 tackle game against Utah earlier this year. Sophomore Porter Gustin rounds out the group, and has recorded 59 tackles and four sacks of his own. According to Zach Helfund of the Los Angeles Times, “...with Gustin and Nwosu on the outside and Michael Hutchings and Cameron Smith on the inside, [this] has made the Trojans’ run defense less of a liability during training camp, despite a young, thin defensive line”. Even though our run game has started to come together (albeit slowly and painfully), I don’t expect it to look much better this weekend. Again, this game seems to bring out the best in everyone, so our running backs may have trouble getting into the triple digits. We’re going to have to rely on top notch coaching, appropriate play calling, and Mike Fafaul’s arm if we want to have a prayer of scoring.

Secondary

Last week against Washington, the Trojan secondary is largely what contained the Husky passing game. Cornerback Adoree Jackson was bested by Washington’s John Ross to the tune of 154 yards, eight catches and a touchdown, but Jackson made up for it by snagging two interceptions (one of which sealed their win). He was chosen by CBS as one of their National Players of the Week this week for his clutch performance when his team needed him late in the game. Senior Leon McQuay III has recorded a total of 36 tackles this year, including five against Washington. Senior Chris Hawkins (who happens to be friends with both Darren Andrews and Jordan Lasley) has played both cornerback and safety and has seen success at both positions. He has recorded 46 tackles this year and has been a force on the outside. Sophomore Marvell Tell has also been used in the secondary and has contributed 36 tackles this season. Fafaul’s habit of throwing passes into traffic that ultimately become interceptions can be the death of us. Unfortunately, I predict at least one Trojan defensive touchdown.

Analysis

In today’s Spaulding Report, Coach Mora was quoted as saying we have to play a “darn near perfect game” on Saturday. I don’t think he has ever been more correct. I have butterflies in my stomach as I write this, and I think we can all feel the tension building. All is not lost, but Fafaul is really going to have to get it together this weekend to overcome some of his past mistakes. I hope he has analyzed game film and looked at why he has thrown so many interceptions, and those mistakes have been fixed or at least worked on. The Southern Cal defense is not as strong as their offense, but as everyone knows, anything can happen in a rivalry game.

Go Bruins! Beat $C!