The concept of big-time players making big-time plays in big-time games is nothing new. And ultimately, it’s a nice sounding statement that encapsulates one of the most obvious aspect of sports: Your best players need to play their best in big moments.
Against Arizona State, it’s what happened at times for USC. Quarterback Kedon Slovis found wide receiver Drake London for a game-winning touchdown strike. Defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu made a huge third-down stop late in the game to get the ball back for USC, setting up the Trojans’ comeback. And outside linebacker Drake Jackson put the finishing touches on the win, getting quick pressure against ASU quarterback Jayden Daniels and forcing a fourth-down incompletion that effectively ended the game.
As the Trojans continue making their way through this season and settle into this new Todd Orlando defense, the asks of the top players on that side of the ball might be the same this weekend. And Tuipulotu, Jackson and others are capable of carrying more than their share.
“Sometimes you get on the ropes a little bit and you’re searching and the big-time guys step up and make the plays that settle people in or just make explosives,” Orlando said, referring to Tuipulotu’s performance against Arizona State, when he had USC’s lone sack among his eight tackles. “Those plays, that’s the expectation because these guys are very seasoned. Some of the younger guys that don’t have a lot of game reps, if they’re in the spots they’re supposed to be and they’re making the plays they’re supposed to make, you’re happy with that. But when you get guys like Marlon, guys like Drake, you’re looking for two or three plays that are outside the norm to go along with the plays they should make.”
Tuipulotu was the man in the middle for USC on Saturday and the spotlight will shine brightly on him for the rest of the season as he plays without Jay Tufele next to him. He got a few breathers when Stanley Ta’ufo’ou came in to give him a breather, but ultimately there was little rotation up front, as USC relied heavily on its starters. Orlando said until things change in practice, that will be the case all over the defense.
“How you practice around here is going to be how many reps you get,” Orlando said. “We’ve kind of talked about this going into this. It’s not going to be participation awards…Here’s the cool part about it is every night after practice, we sit down and we watch every rep of every play that we have. And there’s no favoritism, there’s no backside meetings, none of that stuff. The way you practice is the amount of plays you’re going to get. You practice your tail off, you’re going to be playing on Saturdays, and if you don’t, it’s going to be limited. So we’re trying to stay very consistent in terms of our message so we can get better throughout the year.”
Jackson’s role in this defense has been one of the focal points since it was announced in the spring that he would transition to an outside linebacker role from the traditional defensive end position he played last fall. Though, last year’s defense did at times ask him to drop or move a bit, this scheme seemed poised to take him away from rushing the passer a bit more.
Orlando said Thursday that he felt Jackson had a good performance against Arizona State. Orlando added that he went into the game a little concerned that Jackson might not have gotten enough live reps after returning to practice following a hamstring issue. But those worries were alleviated quickly.
“He did a really good job and to me, he’s a special player,” Orlando said of Jackson. “We have to be mindful of the stuff we’re doing or asking him to do…but the play he makes at the end of the game is just — those are the 2-3 plays that really special players make.”
Orlando has implied before that they need to be cognizant of how often they pull Jackson away from being able to put his pass rushing talent on display, and he understands that the sophomore brings something to the field that can’t be taught.
“To me, that’s recruiting,” Jackson said of USC’s final defensive play. “You’re in this area and there’s some really good high school players in this area, the top guys. You get those guys to come to your program and they make us all look great. He did some things out there that were pretty special.”
Orlando said he expects improved play from the inside linebackers against Arizona, as he works with that unit to clean up some alignment and assignment miscues. He also said the cornerbacks will be important Saturday, as the RPO looks from Arizona can stress a secondary that can get caught peeking in the backfield and allowing a receiver to streak past them when the quarterback fakes the run or quick throw and then uncorks a deep ball.
None of the USC players or coaches believe Saturday was the best they are capable of. All who have spoken with the media since the game have said they’re proud of the comeback, but there are plenty of things they need to clean up and improve upon by Saturday. This rebuilding Arizona team should allow USC a chance to get some things corrected, and Saturday’s game should provide another platform for some of USC’s big-time players to produce big-time games.