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Defensively Speaking: Stanford review

Last night’s game against Stanford was an epic return to Trojan football. This is the football that we grew up on and whose return we have been looking for too many years. I’ll tell you this, that sentiment has been shared with me by other former players and some very knowledgeable former opponents whose opinions I solicit, welcome and strongly value. For the record, it was unanimous that these football savvy folks to a person were reminded that last night is what Trojan football has meant and looked like for many, many decades. And I’ll also tell you that this is how intense and physical you must practice and play every week in order to win at the elite level.

What you saw yesterday defensively was quite extraordinary. I mean jaw-dropping, incredible and impressive preparation and execution. Coach Clancy Pendergast (CP) installed a special defensive set for Stanford and outcoached and out schemed Stanford’s offensive coordinator and play callers…by a lot. One of CP’s all-time best performances. Coach CP installed a multiple front with 2, 3 and occasionally 4 DLs (one set looked like a 5 DL set btw!) with the ILBs playing some different gap roles. The secondary was tasked with mostly press zone (looks like man-to-man coverage to the QB) at the corners and specialized zone for the safeties. Clancy totally turned the defensive look upside down by walking up the ILBs into the A-gaps on many 1st and some 2nd downs. We usually do this on 3rd downs to show QB pressure. We rarely showed this look on any down at all last week against Western Michigan. Clancy was trying to accomplish at least two things:  1) take the pulling guards out of the equation by not only filling the A gaps but instructing the ILBs (Mike & Will backers…or Cam Smith and John Houston respectively) to follow the guards if they did pull. This makes the O-line change their preferred calls on the line of scrimmage (LOS) and check down to a reach or zone block. A very knowledgeable football coach and former plyer told me earlier this week that this technique was very likely to be deployed but only if the young defensive linemen could make this adjustment…and 2) CP was also simplifying reads and assignments for the younger defensive players so they could play faster and more aggressively.

You may have noticed that ‘Furd moved away from this usual power game and moved into a spread formation run game late in the second quarter and into the third quarter. Clancy countered that move by keeping seven men in the box (Cover 4) and then daring Stanford to pass the ball. He also turned Nwosu loose which proved to be a remarkable outcome. Nwosu was defensive player of the game in my view but Green, Smith and Tell all had monster games too. The defensive results were impressive with Stanford held to 10 points (0 in the 3rd quarter) after the load the box spread adjustment. In total, the defense held Stanford to 95 rushing yards on 25 rushing attempts after adjusting out the 75 yard TD run by Bryce Love. Btw on that play the Stanford O-line pulled and sealed off the perimeter and then screened off Cam Smith on the inside (he was held too but these are Pac-12 refs so no call).

An additional adjustment was keeping Uchenna Nwosu on the weak side (away from the tight end usually). Nwosu had 3 PBUs and was a nightmare for the Stanford’s QB (Chryst). Uchenna was also in this same role last week against WMU but kept a strong containment edge. This week CP allowed Nwosu to take an inside pass rush route on obvious passing downs which worked beautifully as Stanford was unprepared for this change and his athleticism. The net impact was forcing Stanford off their preferred game and make blocking and play-calling adjustments they don’t want to make and clearly are not used to making. Their redzone 3rd & 4th down conversions were 6 out of 13 or 46%. Pretty effective defense against a ball control, shove it down your throat type of team.

Yesterday was a statement game for this Trojan team for both coaches and players. I’m somewhat reminded of the win last year over U of W in Seattle. Similar feeling but from yesterday’s game I finally saw us take LOS control on both sides of the ball. That was impressive and I hope is a harbinger of this season. I must point out that coach Deland McCullough and Neil Callaway have both done an incredible job upping the game of the running backs and O-line. The RBs are running hard, blocking well and catching the ball all with no fumbles. The O-line is still a WIP but greatly advanced from last week and even last year’s run blocking.

No assessment would be complete or honest without pointing out areas of needed improvement. So here goes; 1) zero yards on kick returns vs. Stanford’s 128 yards…please catch the punt but not on the 5-yard line, 2) Gustin needs to be more productive while keeping a strong edge – tough assignment but it is necessary and part of the role 3) tackling still needs work, 4) place kicking game is still a big question especially with an injury now.

In summary, this was a statement game saying we are going to impose our will, run the ball first and effectively and play tough physical defense. This team has an opportunity to build upon this game and learn how satisfying and successful purposeful, focused physicality is. You win games and make the other guy blink and go home wondering what just happened. I really hope Pendergast will continue utilizing the multiple fronts he unveiled yesterday.

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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