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UCLA at Southern Cal Defensive Preview: Turnovers Will Make All the Difference

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In a rivalry game, an interception, pick six, or fumble can swing momentum and change a game’s outcome.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Turnover stats are always something teams look at because turning the ball over is a gift to your opponent and puts points on the wrong side of the scoreboard. We have had big problems in this area, namely four turnovers against Stanford that were all in UCLA territory, and we are the worst in the Pac 12 in converting turnovers to points. We can’t seem to capitalize on another team’s mistakes, and we’re at the bottom of the turnover margin rankings, coming in at #116. Focus camera two on Southern Cal, where they are tied for 8th in the country in turnovers gained. They can hit, strip, and intercept, and score points on defense much better than we can. They rank 71st in total defense, and while that isn’t exactly impressive, we’re still sitting at the bottom at 123.

Defensive Line

The only freshman on Southern Cal’s entire defense is defensive end Liam Jimmons, and he’ll be up front with Josh Fatu and Rasheem Green. It’s hard to find a weakness on such a powerful defense, but I have uncovered one: the Trojans seem to have issues covering third and long. They minimize their opponents’ third down conversions as they’re in short yardage situations, but when teams facing Southern Cal have more than ten yards to go, they actually have a better chance of converting. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has a notoriously aggressive defense, which can be very effective but also yield big plays (hence explaining their #71 ranking). This will in turn put major pressure on our front five to protect Rosen, which I see as a huge challenge against this unit.

Linebackers

If we thought we were Linebacker U, Southern Cal may have the opportunity to take this title from us. Cameron Smith, Porter Gustin and Uchenna Nwosu have all been named to the Butkus Award Watch List for 2017. They have 164 recorded tackles between the three of them, with Smith carrying the load at 87. Nwosu replaced Su’a Cravens last year, and is having a monster of a senior year. He has 5.5 sacks for 25 yards lost, and will be the guy on the outside looking to crush Rosen’s shoulder again. Each one of these guys has recorded an interception, which could be a major factor since the Trojan defense is so good at causing turnovers.

Secondary

As mentioned before, that aggressive Pendergast defense can put pressure on this unit. If a ball carrier gets away or if a quarterback can actually air it out, it is up to these guys to cover the rest of the field. Led by senior Chris Hawkins, this unit is stacked with experience and is four deep in every position. As a member of Southern Cal’s relatively small senior class, Hawkins is an early favorite in the 2018 draft, and is considered one of the top safeties in the country. He has 58 tackles so far, with 3.5 for a loss and two sacks that totaled a loss of 15 yards. Safety Marvell Tell has amassed 70 tackles this year, and has obviously recovered from a hamstring injury he suffered during fall camp. Corners Jack Jones and Iman Marshall have 68 tackles between them, and Jones was the Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Week back in September after snagging two picks to add to the Trojans’ six total forced turnovers against Cal. Marshall had an interesting beginning in football, and according to the Los Angeles Times, was once considered a seven-way player. Yes, seven. The Times reports:

USC coach Clay Helton often targets two-way recruits, players who play a position on offense and defense. Marshall offered something rare: a seven-way player. Before Marshall played cornerback, he was a quarterback. Before he was a quarterback, he played linebacker … and running back ... and defensive tackle … and defensive end ... and offensive tackle.

Just what we need to face. It’s no surprise that he is one of the defensive leaders of this team, and he said that touring so many positions,

"...taught me how to be more disciplined playing offensive line on the side of the ball. Being physical playing nose guard and linebacker growing up in high school gave me that aspect of it. Playing quarterback a little bit, stuff like that, understanding how to read and how to dissect certain things, look for certain tendencies, it all helped."

Analysis

I don’t think we need to analyze this too closely. They clearly have us beat on defense. We’re at the point where we’re relying on Rivalry Week energy to fuel this team to avoid a blow out and at least keep it close. Our offensive line is going to have to be perfect to keep Rosen healthy for 60 solid minutes. I see their defense able to score points almost as well as their offense, which is something the Bruins have struggled with quite a bit this season.

Go Bruins!