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Defensively Speaking: Rose Bowl 2017

by Kevin Bruce

Of course this game was one for the ages. More than just the Trojan family will be talking about this game for many years to come. Gee, I guess the Rose Bowl game and that experience is still pretty darn compelling and players will still put their health and career futures on the line just to line up and compete for the championship of the Granddaddy of them all. All those other chrome-plated games have wide audiences…but lack depth or tradition. But welcome to the new NCAA.

But yesterday was college football as it should be with pageantry, tradition, players, coaches and fans that care a lot about this specific championship game. There was not an ounce of quit or give in either team. This venue is classic and deserves the respect shown yesterday by playing the most memorable game of the 2016 season…period.

Defensively Speaking, this report out for the WeAreSC.com Trojan family really gets interesting. There was a real chess match going on yesterday that wasn’t readily apparent but was intensely being fought. There was physical play, plenty of mistakes, bizarre (in the extreme) officiating and many on-field adjustments not seen this entire season. But Fight On! We ultimately created a handful more good plays than did Penn State and that was the difference. Boom! Drop the mic, blow the confetti and unquestionably know we just witnessed more USC history and lore…”Daddy/Mommy where were you when the Trojans scored 52 points for a come from behind win in the Rose Bowl??”

Let me try to describe what happened on defense…

Penn State was very well coached and prepared for this game. Ironically you really saw that displayed most clearly by their defense as they showed a new look compared to the bulk of the season. On many first and some second downs against our offense they were particularly effective in Q1 especially against the run. Hence our points off turnovers and field position was only 10 vs. what should’ve been 21 or more.

PSU used a 4 or 5 big man front with 3 to 4 LBs and a single safety on top with two man cover corners. This was a variant off their typical front and was designed to stop the first down runs and short inside routes in order to force longer 3rd down conversions. It’s also tough for a QB to read. This set is vulnerable to perimeter throws and deeper post or wheel routes. While only partially successful (we were 8 out of 15 on 3rd downs) but still pretty good.

Well similarly PSU also changed up their offensive look against our defense. This created more mismatches, read confusion, slower reactions and contributed to some of our shoddy tackling at times.

  1. We eventually had to change our pre-snap alignments as PSU was reading these keys and then running plays designed specifically to exploit. During a game it can become obvious that the opponent has figured out your look, tendencies and/or sideline signals. Our response is to hide the defense set to protect the pressure side. PSU is well coached and forced us to show a vanilla front after the early Q3 disaster. After setting the plain or vanilla 4-3 we would then move to the called package. This is the game-within-the-game. Hats off to Pendergast for making these adjustments throughout the game sometimes on the fly and not just in the locker room at halftime. Btw after Smith got tossed (ridiculous call exceeded only by the fumble reversal call) our vanilla set was a sitting duck for the run. PSU should have ground the ball out…oh well your bad our good.
  2. PSU used a lot more of motion but with an outside-in motion man blocking down and sealing Porter and/or Uchenna. Pretty effective and both our Des were targeted the entire game. Stevie T. stepped up and manned-up in a big way. One year at SC and he’ll not be forgotten.
  3. Our “4-3 over” look signaled pressure and location to PSU. Coach Pendergast eventually went with a simpler pre-snap set to disguise our pressure angles. Nice job by CP.
  4. During the first half we focused our pass coverage to the boundary strong side with a second progression read/key to Barkley out of the backfield. This left #12 (Godwin) open on the weak or man cover side. He ate us up obviously with McSorely’s “throw it and hope” technique which frankly worked pretty well (ex. three interceptions).
  5. In the second half Pendergast switched the “cloud” cover to Godwin (#12) generally wherever he went. This helped our defense manage his catches by putting a bubble around him…except for the “Biggie tip”. For the record, Biggie made a good play on that Q3 ball that he batted. Great technique; he turned to the QB, fronted the receiver, hand on the ball etc. Of course the problem was that the ball ended up in the end zone which is just plain bad luck but it is not bad defense.
  6. PSU went to a “glance” offensive look (plays signaled from the sideline, no-huddle and up-tempo) more so than any other of their games this season. That said we won the TOP 33:21 vs. 26:39, 88 plays to 62. But let’s face it their explosive plays were impressive combined with our poor tackling.
  7. Btw the TOP battle was fascinating with Q1 10:34 vs. 4:26 USC, Q2 10:14 vs. 4:46 PSU, Q3 9:35 vs. 5:25 USC (explosive and sudden change plays) and Q4 (the Fight On! Quarter) 8:26 vs. 6:34 USC for a total of 33:21 vs. 26:39 USC.
  8. Both teams were 100% red zone conversion; 4 of 5 USC touchdowns and 1 FG vs. 3 of 3 TDs for Penn State. Good offense, turnovers and/or spotty defense…take your pick all are correct answers.

Perspective is important here. We just beat a top 5 team that really should have been in the CFP (sorry tOSU). We shutout same team in Q4 after gagging the place in Q3. Best linebacker ejected, best defensive and ST player hurt, squandered Q1 chances etc. Are we CFP ready? Hmmmm, interesting question but the defensive gold standard is Alabama and we have some ground to make up.

Here is a serious shout out to Coach Clancy Pendergast. I’m now convinced he is an excellent choice as DC. I also believe he needs his “guys” on defense including some blue chip Stevie T. replacements he can count on and he needs coaching help for teaching proper technique, scheme, learning keys and play pattern recognition. Nobody needs to teach this team how to Fight On!

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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