by Kevin Bruce
All of you that thought we played a great defensively football game raise your hands. Ok, I don’t see any. You’re a tough but knowledgeable crowd. How about a good solid game? Tougher call and I see quite a few hands. My grade is a hard fought C+. But given that our jump off point was a miserable Stanford experience then this was a pretty encouraging step up. Admittedly I may be (am) a tough grader but I saw some development and improvement along the LOS and in the secondary. Let me explain…
We opened with the typical Wilcox Trojan defensive scheme with 4-3 Hybrid with zone up strong-side and zone back weak in a Cover 2 shell. Our DT is in the “odd” alignment as a true NT in a zero technique over the center. Sometimes I hear folks say we have a two gap defense…we really don’t except for the NT (Pelon in this case) and Wilcox asks him to cover both “A” gaps with MLB help on that side (usually the strong side if a TE or the side with the most receivers and running back). Claude did a yeoman’s job but we just can’t cover both gaps…period. A-State, Idaho and certainly ‘Furd all blew up our inside gap control. Later in this game we moved to an even set (nobody over the center) with a true 4-3 in order to pressure Bercovici. This set was our halftime adjustment while leading 35-0. Additionally we decided bring outside and inside blitzes, twists and inside read pressure from the ILB’s. I actually think this is a better set for us even against a read option run/throw QB which we’ll see a fair amount of this season.
There was quite a bit of talk this week about managing first down better for the defense to be successful. That’s fine as far as it goes but that’s not a strategy. What I could glean from this game is we’re still vulnerable to the inside power game but we have good quick folks in the back seven players. I’m seriously impressed with the freshmen LB’s and I would gamble more with them in certain situations as they have the athleticism to make disruptive plays. I like the 4-3 set much better so go with it. Wilcox could sub out in certain situations. And we clearly saw a lot more man cover by the CB’s in the second half. Mixed results but I liked it. That’s the sort of adjustment we have to do to bring in both run and pass blitzes to pressure and confuse the offense.
What is not working is “A” gap control as mentioned. Prescription to fix is more 4-3 alignment and add-in more line slants and twists. In this way we take away certain things upfront and then read and react to the weak point in the defense thereby reducing the risk of a big play. I like this for another reason…we play faster and tougher when we attack versus our read-n-react. Our ILB’s are 6-7 yards of the LOS in normal alignment which is too deep for my taste. I prefer a standard 4-5 yards or stagger one ILB deeper than the other one situationally.
It seems that Chris Wilson (defensive line coach) doesn’t like to stunt along the LOS on third and short. I like to stunt on any occasion just not predictably. According to Wilson, “We got them into third and long and that was the key. As a play caller you don’t spend an inordinate amount of time on third and two, there are really no great calls. So if you’ve done a great job on normal downs it gives you an opportunity on third downs.” So this approach means we twist and stunt unless we’re in third and long. Maybe he’s ok with first and second downs in general…just don’t know for sure as not enough data yet but I haven’t seen much slanting at all and only a few twists.
Our zone pass defense is way, way too soft in the two zone and this is clearly not working (by way of reminder 2 zone is 0-17 yards in the middle third of the field…some prefer a shorter zone designation but this makes the most sense to me). While we held ASU to 3rd/4th down conversion of 5/14 (36%) our soft two zone left the TE and crossing patterns wide open. Possibly Wilcox is betting on pressure to get to the QB but I think that is just drawing to an inside straight.
Some of what I liked was Simmons and Pelon disrupting the backfield with some penetration. This created lots of issues for ASU when they did. Townsend did a better job on containment and pressure and has improved his run defense. Really liked how Townsend got his hands in the air to disrupt Bercovici versus going for the sack. He’s learning team defense. Secondary play was ordinary to my eye but with some nice big plays as an evener. Iman is really just learning and Seymour is missed right now. Safety play was OK but lots of open receivers at times in the 4,5 and 6 zones.
I know this reads a little picky but with +4 turnovers (net +3) and a returned fumble we really pulled the rug out from under ASU. The fundamentals were better last night but teams like ND, Utah and others are licking their chops right now waiting for our defense. We have more work to do of course but for now it’s great for the team to enjoy the film session tonight.
Kevin Bruce played linebacker at USC from 1972-75 and was part of two national title teams. He is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.