A USC defensive secondary that has played well over the first four games of the season will get its biggest test on Saturday, as quarterback Jacob Eason and the Washington Huskies will look to challenge a group that might be playing without its two best players.
Safety Talanoa Hufanga and cornerback Olaijah Griffin have yet to fully practice this week, as Hufanga is in concussion protocol and Griffin is dealing with a back issue that knocked him out of the Utah game. If neither can go against the Huskies, Chase Williams will likely slide into the safety spot, while Isaac Taylor-Stuart — who missed the Utah game due to a concussion — and Chris Steele will man the outside cornerback spots. Behind Williams, there’s C.J. Pollard, and then true freshman Briton Allen and walk-on Jordan McMillan, but this could turn into an ironman type game for those defensive back starters against a potent passing attack.
“Every offense creates a different type of challenge,” USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said. “This is a very good skill set receiver group, very good skill set tight end group, very good skill set running back group. They all catch the ball extremely well and the quarterback does a good job of finding the areas, and he’s got a big arm and makes really good decisions.”
As with the first four games of the year, USC is prepared to see plenty of pre-snap motion from Washington. The Trojans have been hit hard by run plays to the perimeter, and while Pendergast brought additional pressure from the outside against Utah in order to mitigate that, the Utes still found some success there. It’s up to the Trojans to respond against those plays when Washington runs them.
“Everybody’s going to run the fly sweeps, the flair screens,” Pendergast said. “It’s just part of offensive football these days. We’re a speed-oriented defense and I think our front seven is pretty stout inside. So it’s going to invite more plays that are going to happen on the perimeter, and we just have to continue to react to them and see them, practice them, and hopefully play them better.”
There doesn’t seem to be a quick fix for the issue — at least not one Pendergast is sharing before his defense takes on Washington — as Pendergast pointed out the advantage that giving a runner the ball on a fly sweep motion enables him to almost immediately outflank the defense while the defenders are still diagnosing where the play is going and what their responsibilities are.
Senior middle linebacker John Houston said he has seen some progress in that area, but the defense as a whole is still working toward that elusive perfect game.
The Trojans rank toward the bottom of the country in allowing plays of 10 or more yards. Washington is capable of putting together big plays, so that will be something to watch this weekend.
“I think a lot of those plays are space plays,” Pendergast said. “We have to continue to play better in space and tackle in space. Some of it’s been quarterback scrambles, quarterback designed runs, fly sweeps, quick screens, things that are out on the perimeter. We just have to do a good job of tackling. The deep balls — knock on wood — are something our guys have done a pretty good job against defensively.”
Quarterback Kedon Slovis, safety Talanoa Hufanga, and cornerback Olaijah Griffin did not dress for practice.
Defensive end Christian Rector was dressed and participated in practice.
Asked whether the team would need to change anything in its road preparation for the trip to Washington, as the Trojans are 3-0 at home and 0-1 on the road this year, Houston said that it would be about getting the energy level up for a 12:30 game at a different stadium. He wants the team to be able to match the intensity level of what they would put out for a night game at the Coliseum.
Asked about Eason, true freshman cornerback Chris Steele was quick to point out his arm strength: “He has a real strong arm. I’ve seen him make many throws that were over 50 yards. He’s really accurate in the passing game. He knows how to get the ball in his playmakers’ hands.”