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Defensively Speaking: Arizona State

As USC football games go at least for the last several years, yesterday’s contest in Tempe was a perfect analogy of the current state of our football program. Impressively strong start offensively, then quiet down, manufacture several special teams’ breakdowns, sustain a few injuries, commit costly penalties and then perhaps prevail at the end with a victory by a big play (about a 50/50 chance of a win over the past two seasons, btw). This team and football program are not for the faint of heart and don’t ever relax. Frankly, without Rector’s outstanding tip and interception I think ASU wins that game yesterday.

The Scheme & Results:

1. The defensive scheme should look very familiar by now. We play four DLs, toggle in a two-point speed rusher situationally (usually Malik McClain or Eli’jah Winston and occasionally Juliano Falaniko). The secondary is a nickel-set with situational players depending on 1) Who is healthy and 2) Who Clancy Pendergast can use of his remaining secondary personnel in his QB blitzes. So, our base defense remains Pendergast’s well understood 4-2-5 but with personnel variations and some nuanced pressure packages. We were effective against the run but not the pass.

2. I noticed that Coach K adjusted our 3-tech (3i) DT to inside shade the offensive guard to get better control of the A-gaps on many first downs especially after Caleb Tremblay went down and Brandon Pili had to handle much of the A-gap control since Jay Tufele got at least double-teamed on every play.

3. You also might be wondering what the heck was going on in the secondary after the first quarter. It seemed like throwing the ball against our defense was just too easy. That was due to a combination of factors;

  • Our pass rush was generally ineffective with only one sack of a first-time starter true freshman QB (now when have we heard of that before??). ASU’s QB Yellen was given a good game plan with quick release throws and an occasional deep ball. This is a great formula for freshmen QBs it seems.
  • When Tremblay went down with an injury our DL was seriously depleted for pass rushing. Jackson was giving it his all, but his ankle recovery is not 100%, Rector is sporadic, Pili is a bull-rusher and Tufele gets double and tripled teamed.
  • I was surprised we didn’t see much more blitzing from Pendergast. I would have thought that was a perfect antidote to a thinned-out DL pass rush.
  • Kana’i Mauga and John Houston aren’t great in pass coverage. Houston is slightly better but Mauga is truly just guessing out there right now and is highly susceptible to influence routes. Watch the last ASU drive and you’ll see both Houston and Mauga play too soft and allow first down conversions. The ASU tight end who dropped what was likely a TD pass was Mauga’s underneath responsibility and he was suckered into putting his eyes into the backfield on the running back. That is an absolute no-no if you’re playing sound assignment football vs. heroics.
  • Our corner backs refuse to play good technique. With single or even a two-high safety set (halves) the CBs and Nickel must, must, must take away inside routes! This broke down so many times I stopped counting. I was grateful that Dorian Hewett played much of the 4th quarter as his assignment game is solid and he can make plays. Why he doesn’t start is a head-scratcher to me.

4. Leave it to the Pac-12 officiating to have not one but two critical plays reversed on questionable calls. This time it was to our advantage by taking a pick six off the board vs. our interception by Talanoa Hufanga.

Shout Outs:

  1. Christian Rector really did save the day and the game with his pick. One excellent athletic play by a big man. You’ll notice on that last drive that Drake Jackson and Rector were playing some line games and twist moves. This is what happened on the pick. Rector slips inside and is in the throwing lane in front of the receiver (I think Benjamin) and Yellen doesn’t see him as his attention is on Jackson and getting the ball out quickly. He did release quickly and that was the game.
  2. Jackson and Pili played tough football and neither is 100%. Tufele is clearly targeted by every team as a must be blocked at all costs.
  3. I’m sorry to see Tremblay get hurt as his game was improving every week.
  4. Hewett played well and was fundamentally sound assignment-wise. When we execute that way it makes the safety play so much more effective.
  5. Both Isaiah Pola-Mao and Hufanga played well. Hufanga had a forced fumble (FF) and a pick (nullified by penalty)

Special Teams:

  1. Ben Griffiths punted well on the good side of the ledger. He had one clunker in the 4th quarter but some excellent inside the 20 punts.
  2. KO returns were finally corrected. I guess this was John Baxter’s big adjustment this week. Take the ball at the 25, please!
  3. KO coverage was atrocious which apparently escaped Baxter’s attention this past week. Can we try to kick the ball to the left and maybe thru the endzone? Can we work a bit more on lane control? How about putting starters on coverage? Well, we did. Starting Will linebacker Mauga missed wrapping up Aiyuk on his 97-yard return. Just inexcusable. You have to use your hands and fingers or whatever is left available and grab on to returner to make a tackle and then get help from your team mates. Geez, this is not cold fusion we’re trying to invent here just good KO coverage.

A Note: I was genuinely surprised by the on-air trash talking regarding Urban Meyer as a coach and leader. I suspect there is some Pac-12 death wish going on when it comes to USC football. Well, screw the Pac-12 and hire the one guy that can turn this program around. We are floundering charitably put which is bad for us, the conference and the student/athletes. I for one would be ecstatic if we could bring on Coach Meyer. We passed on one elite coach already (Orgeron), so why pass on a second one?  Read Arledge’s Musings on this topic, very informative.

Kevin Bruce
Kevin Bruce

Kevin earned his MBA and BS in Business Administration/Finance & Econometrics from the University of Southern California, where he also played four years of varsity football, serving as co-captain and playing in three Rose Bowls. Kevin’s college honors included All-American (AP-Honorable Mention), All Pac-8 Conference - Linebacker (1st) and Academic All-American, two NCAA National Championships (football), NCAA Post Graduate Scholarship recipient and Trojan Diamond Award-outstanding graduating senior. He is a member of Football Writers Association of America and is a contributor to WeAreSC.com.

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