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Defensively Speaking: Stanford review

by Kevin Bruce

I have to agree with Coach Helton’s quote about “wanting us to be like Stanford” or as I would say, I want us to be like we used to be when Stanford aspired to be like us. That was good old fashioned talent vs. talent and smash mouth vs. smash mouth. Saturday’s game wasn’t even close as a well-run point-of-attack football team still has a prominent place in CFB today. And so does good fundamental defense with strong one-gap LOS battles, penetration, good communication and assignment recognition and sustained physicality. That’s my prescription for this defense.

As for this game we posted zero sacks (against 15 pass attempts) and only three TFLs (against 46 rushing attempts). Of these three TFLs none were by a DL or LB. All the TFLs were by secondary players (two by safeties one by CB) and one fumble forced by a safety (no recovery).

So then you tell me who won the battle in the box? And when it comes to outcomes if you lose the LOS battle then you lose the game. This is especially true against a team like Stanford. This is not a new story or script. Stanford just rewinds last several years’ worth of playbooks to determine how to come after us. Until we beat them that’s how they’ll roll. Power blocking, lead back (FB), pulling guards, double team with lead FB blocker (blast plays to both the right and left), jumbo sets, unbalanced line, trips, doubles, motion and more was on display yesterday. This was only their second game and a limited playbook.

Time of possession battle parallels the power game approach. We win the first and third quarters and Stanford dominates the second and fourth quarters to close us out with a win and a decisive 9:08 minute advantage and pounding the ball at our defense 42 times vs. our 26 run attempts. Stanford’s combined third/fourth down conversion rate was an impressive 50% (7 of 14). They never acted like a team that thought they could lose to us…because they don’t believe we can beat them. We ultimately proved them correct again.

Our defensive set was standard Pendergast with two DLs in his “5-2” set. For my way of thinking it looks a lot like a 3-4 under set with DT playing an inside 3 technique and DE playing a shaded 5 technique. We did move to a jumbo set with three true DLs and on one series we actually used four DLs. The four DLs were used to try to offset Stanford’s super-jumbo set. Frankly I liked this look a lot with 3 LBs and Cover Two in the secondary with CB man or zone depending on formation. I would have shown this earlier in game (first half) to make Burks have to throw the ball more. Our secondary was two deep unless multiple receiver set (WR & Slot or trips) or motion to strong side multiple receivers. Then the safeties toggled between Free and Strong depending on formation and motion. CB Marshall played man back (inside) and man-zone (coverages look very similar on TV) and Jackson had Rector man-thru (meaning man coverage regardless of where he went etc.) even when Rector was running a reverse for a touchdown (not the angle for a tackle!!). There were just a few instances where I definitely saw a nickel package and this was when we had Stanford 3rd and long (six times btw for the entire game). Hutchings again lead the team in total tackles with seven and Jackson had six unassisted tackles which is a game high for him. AJ also made a nice leaping pick on a deep sideline pass. This is my point regarding forcing Stanford to pass the ball more using our jumbo front set and might even pressure the QB a get a sack or two.

So what did we learn?

Ironically this was our best defensive performance of the season by far in my view but just not up to the challenge posed by Stanford. I thought the defensive game plan was adequate but not special or particularly innovative. More can be done with our personnel. There were no line stunts/twists or even slants that I could see. Big bodies that know how to block will defeat our lighter bodies especially later in the second and fourth quarters. Point-of-attack blocking is less common than years ago but still works and we didn’t have an answer. We have good athletes out there working pretty darn hard but there is still a noticeable lack of cohesiveness and crisp communication between players especially secondary to linebackers. Also the alignment of LBs is odd to me to be 5-6 yards off the LOS or 4 yards deep in our end zone…doesn’t help making the tackle at the minus 1 yard line.

This week will be very telling as this Trojan team has to pick itself off the mat and toughen up a get ready to play again. I hope Pendergast takes a look at some changes up front but history tells me that his “5-2” is a nail in search of a hammer (yes I mean it in that sequence too).

Kevin Bruce played linebacker at USC from 1972-75 and was a member of two national title teams. He is now a member of the FWAA. 

Garry Paskwietz

A 1988 graduate of USC with a degree in Sports Information. Worked in sports marketing for LA Lakers and Miller Brewing Company. Began covering the Trojans in 1996 with the Trojan Football Fax. Founded WeAreSC in November 1998 with stints at Scout and ESPN. Emmy-winner while covering high school football at Fox Sports West.

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