Just 50 days ago from today, Lane Kiffin was the head coach at USC, losing to Arizona State and falling to 0-2 in Pac-12 play. Their defense had allowed 62 points to the Sun Devils and the future looked dim for a program that is consistently filled with four and five star recruits.
Interim head coach Ed Orgeron has quickly changed the culture of this team and brought USC back to dominance since he took over. After winning four straight Pac-12 games, including a win at ranked Oregon State, Orgeron and the Trojans had the opportunity to truly show that they’re back to national relevance as they took on Stanford this past weekend.
Lead by their defense, USC pulled off a win that seemed impossible a few weeks ago, taking down the 4th ranked team in the country and giving the Trojans the respect their program deserves.
Thanks to injuries and past early declarees for the NFL Draft, the Trojans had just one true senior starter (and only four seniors on their two deep depth-chart) as they took on Stanford. But despite some hiccups in filling gaps and finishing drives motor-wise, the fairly young group displayed ample composure and consistency against one of the best coached and most fundamentally sound offenses in the country.
A team focused on interior pressure and winning with just 4-5 rushers on a consistent basis, the Trojans have had success in recent weeks by allowing their non-lineman playmakers Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey to make plays in space and in coverage. Their defensive line studs Leonard Williams (sophomore) and George Uko (redshirt junior)were able to drive upfield early and throughout the game.
A Stanford offense is focused on power running and countering off that with read option and play action work. But thanks to USC’s interior presence to contain the Cardinal on 2nd/3rd and short as well as Hayes Pullard’s finishing ability as a tackler in space, the Trojans were able to win on enough 3rd downs and force two turnovers to keep this Stanford offense to their lowest output of the season.
Factor #1 – Interior Defensive Line Winning on Short Yardage Situations 2, 4
Stanford’s offensive line has been consistently successful since the Jim Harbaugh era began, and the 2013 version may be the best in the past five years. With David Yankey and Kevin Danser pulling effectively and finishing blocks at the second level along with two other senior starters playing at a high level, this unit has had success in winning initially and directing defensive lines with ease all season.
On an early 3rd and 2 situation, the USC front was able to overpower the Stanford offensive interior, holding well at the point of attack, and finishing the tackle short of the 1st down. In the middle of the defense, #98 Cody Temple, collapses any initial hole, followed by #90 (George Uko) and #42 (Devon Kennard) finish the tackle short. It’s a team effort to contain the Stanford running game, and USC relied on their depth and interior defensive talent to do just that throughout the game.
However, despite that success on many short yardage plays and limiting the Stanford big runs to only a handful, the USC defensive front did seem a bit gassed and tired on the play below, certainly a coaching point moving forward and a key indicator of shear talent the Stanford offensive line has (notice the block Yankey, #65, puts on George Oku, #90) to open the whole initially.
Factor #2 – Hayes Pullard Ability to Finish Tackles in Space 1,3
Slowing the Stanford running game is all about finishing tackles on their usually bruising running backs in space. Most teams’ in the country struggle with this, even if they’re able to generate an initial push against the offensive line.
While USC was able to generate pressure against the Stanford offensive line, they still relied on their redshirt junior Hayes Pullard to finish tackles and put this Stanford offense in 2nd/3rd and long situations that they haven’t been customarily put in this season. Pullard showed off explosiveness after his initial read steps, strong hands to grab and follow through on his tackles, and body positioning to stand strong in traffic and consistently be in good tackling position.
On this first play below, Pullard (#10) tracks the pitch down, comes downhill violently, evades his supposed blocker, and wraps up the runner (Anthony Wilkerson) for a four yard loss.
And on the second play (below), watch Pullard scrape playside with perfect technique, sink and evade his blocker (#94), and drive to the runner to make the tackle for no gain. Probably the most impressive tackle of any player in this game, Pullard stop here was one of many throughout the game that limited the big play ability for the Stanford running game when trying to attack the outside.
Factor #3 – Struggles in Secondary, But Two Forced Turnovers
Attempting just 25 throws throughout the game, the Stanford offense relies on its running game to force safeties and linebackers out of position. And while the run defense did a good enough job against Tyler Gaffney, the secondary’s two interceptions limited the vertical ability of the offense to pick up big chunks of yards.
Tested vertically a handful of times without much success, the Stanford offense had just one catch for over 20 yards, and that was on an impressive after catch run by Michael Rector on a hitch route. The secondary, lead by talented junior cornerback Josh Shaw and senior safety and leader Dion Bailey, USC was able to contain Kevin Hogan and the passing attack, including securing the game-winning interception on 3rd and goal late in the fourth quarter.
Below is that play, where Dion Bailey broke off of his initial responsibility, turned, and sat on the quick slant route that, pre-snap, was the right decision by Kevin Hogan.
The USC defense wasn’t perfect against the Stanford offense. The Cardinal possess one of the best offensive lines (especially fundamentals-wise) in the country, an offense that has had success against multiple types of defenses, and ample talent across the depth chart offensively.
But USC’s defense made enough plays in shutting down the running game and taking advantage of poor throws by Kevin Hogan to guide this team to a victory. Lead by sophomore Leonard Williams, juniors George Uko and Hayes Pullard, and senior Dion Bailey, this USC defense has finally lead this team to gain back the respect of one of the most talented rosters in the country.
With two games left, including a season finale against ranked UCLA, the Trojans won’t be slowing down now. They’re aiming for a ten win season and a redemptive finish to a frustrating start. And it’ll be their young, talented, and newly motivated defense that will guide them there.