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Defensively Speaking: Fresno State

Here we go again. It’s deja vu all over again. Been there, done that. Didn’t like it the first time and I’m sure not going to like this time either. It’s SOS (same ol’ stuff…btw, there are alternative endings to this acronym). There so much to report it’s difficult to narrow the topics down. But let’s talk Defensively Speaking.

Often the statistics don’t tell the real story. In this case of last night’s opener they do. But, the difference between the first quarter and half vs. the second half were night and day. I was hopeful that with a new D-line coach and secondary coach we would see much better play in the box (Line of Scrimmage – LOS). With a few exceptions I just didn’t like what I saw especially as the game wore on.

The base defense was a 4-2-5 with the DEs in a two point stance vs. hand in the ground three point. Later on as Fresno State had success running the RPO, defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast moved to a traditional look. Once we got ahead in the 2nd half he brought pressure with some line stunts and games and blitzes.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Tackling was just awful…as usual. You play as you practice so you can guess how much tackling drills were run.
  • Pass rush was at best spotty and generally ineffective from the front six or even seven
  • Hand technique from the DL was largely missing. Too much chest-to-chest technique and reliance upon bull rush or just standing around (Rector)
  • Overall 3rd conversions were about 30% (5/16) but over 50% in the second half
  • 4th down conversion defense was plan awful at 2/2 or 100% by Fresno State; 0% USC defensive effectiveness on 4th down conversions
  • Rector (#89) bit on the dive man at least six times during the game. As a DE he has to protect the edge and take the QB on RPO (run/pass option). The 3-tech DT and Mike or Sam have to take the inside play. Linebackers must play the RPO inside-out. We really struggled in this aspect of the game. Drake Jackson played a much better and fundamentally sound game than a 5th year senior and captain. Rector played tired much of the game. I hope he can get the necessary intensity and conditioning to contribute as he is very capable of doing
  • EA was lost in space…literally. Honestly He played like he had no clue what to do. He too bit on inside dive when the DT and DE were collapsing on the dive back. He also stayed inside on a fly sweep which is his strong responsibility inside out. He didn’t make any explosive plays that I saw. We need this to happen and quickly. Stanford coming to town
  • Secondary play was actually adequate and better that I thought with just a few glaring 3rd and 4th down conversion breakdowns. But, I don’t think we can count on Stanford’s Costello (if he plays) of missing as many passes as Reyna did. If Costello doesn’t play we’ll see the dreaded power and RPO game from Stanford.
  • Defensive coaching was a mixed bag leaning into same ol’ stuff. CP needs to spool it up. I have a little more confidence in the defense improving than the offense. We’ll know soon enough regarding both.
  • Punting was a shock. The common feedback was Griffiths was a punting stud and would flip the field. Dear Lord, we averaged 37 yards with a long of 38 yards. We lost field position consistently when we punted. Did you notice that Fresno State receivers had to move up as they were expecting booming punts too.
  • We caught two punts inside the 5-yard line…why do we still make these knuckle-headed decisions? Inside the 10-yard line let it go. Geez…
  • Illegal procedure on the opening kickoff return for same numbered jerseys. Honestly, I’ve never seen that before by a USC team. That’s coaching, again

What Worked:

  • John Houston worked laterally pretty well as expected. He led the team in tackles which is about right for Mike LB
  • Drake Jackson (if he stays healthy) is a real force on the LOS. Teams will have to account for him
  • Tufele and Tuipulotu are good…they can be better, but they played solid gap assignment football with an occasional upfield push
  • The few times that we stunted up front Fresno State was unprepared, and it worked. Examples are Drake Jackson twisting inside (I could have cried for joy) and a couple of corner or safety blitzes (Palo-Mao)
  • Fumbles caused and recovered were no accident and well done bu team and Echols and Falaniko
  • The pick to save the game by Palo-Mao was pure instincts, athleticism and execution. He is a very good football player
  • Shout-out to Velus Jones kickoff return of 100+ yards. Game changer…beautiful to watch
  • Additional shout out to Neilon for an excellent game at Center. He was impressive with line calls, blocking and snapping. OL MVP in my book

Ok, the elephant in the room is the need to insert Slovis in as back-up QB. Some weeks ago I said, “What we don’t know about Slovis is his real collegiate game performance since he has none. Sears we know, and dropping him to 4th position means JT better not take a head shot or twisted knee. Can anyone visualize if JT can’t answer the bell against say Utah, Stanford, BYU, UW or ND?? When we trot out Slovis the OL better protect him as the defenses will be licking their chops.”

I would have really liked to have been wrong about this situation. But it was an obvious serious exposure from the Helton & Harrell decision to kick Sears to the curb. Slovis threw a beautiful pass and a great catch. He also mis handled perfect snaps by Nielon including that awful, incomprehensible 4th down call by Helton.

I was strangely confident about beating Stanford until I saw the team yesterday. Not so much now and that feels disappointing but eerily a 2018 redux.

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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