BearTerritory: What’s been the biggest change from the culture under Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron to the culture under Steve Sarkisian?
Dan Weber: First of all, the big change in culture came when Ed Orgeron took over from Lane Kiffin. He made USC a players’ team and the players took over working with a staff that completely bought in to Ed's vision after Lane left. The difference this season isn't all that great. They work just as hard as they did under Ed. This staff is a little younger, maybe a little less sure of itself, and it shows at times. The team is also younger with so many talented freshmen playing. But it's still very much a players' team although maybe much more cautious on defense than the players would like to be. And on offense, there are throwbacks to Lane's head-coach-as-play-caller way of doing things. It's worked and not worked. Same on defense. There's a lot of talent -- not a lot of depth -- but the hesitancy to blitz -- USC blitzes the least of all 65 Power Five conference teams -- is an issue for players who'd rather not play it so safe. On offense as the season has moved on, the up-tempo offense has moved back more to last year's pace. Big difference now is it's no-huddle and almost all shotgun.
BT: The Trojans didn’t practice last week until Saturday, at least formally. What did the players do to keep sharp, and what was Sarkisian’s plan for the week?
DW: They watched film, lifted weights, threw the ball around informally and spent time concentrating on their academics and getting themselves healed up -- "lots of ice baths," Cody Kessler said. That was the plan and three weekend practices, two in full pads, make it look like they might have gone in the right direction there. Those were as good a back-to-back-to-back practices as we've seen since August. This team has fresh legs and looks full of fight.
BT: Javorius Allen has already surpassed 1,000 yards rushing on the season, and he still has three games to go. He’s sitting on six straight 100-yard rushing games and is arguably the best back in the Pac-12. What has he done to pick things up from last year?
DW: Some little changes but mostly he's just been Buck being Buck. He works unbelievably hard and was as talented all season as he showed last year at Cal although Kiffin had him No. 4 on the tailback depth chart for the opener at Hawai'i. Buck just kept working and outlasted Lane and with injuries, got his chance. He has worked on some things like transferring the ball to his arm away from defenders, little things like that, and making people miss in the open field but he's just mostly refined what he's done and USC has played to his strengths despite a young O-line that's not all that consistent but talented and physical.
BT: Despite a line that has three freshmen -- one a redshirt -- a redshirt sophomore and a junior on it, the Trojans have only allowed 21 sacks – fifth in the Pac-12. What has Tim Drevno brought to the table to get the most out of those young guys up front?
DW: Tim talks to them in ways they understand. He's really down to earth and not some guy with an NFL pedigree. He also doesn't treat them like they're right out of high school, He just expects them to get the job done and it started in spring with early-entry Toa Lobendahn in first followed by fellow freshmen, and big, strong athletes Viane Talamaivao and Damien Mama in the summer -- USC hasn't catered to them, just expected them to be able to make plays without saying "Woe is me, we're so young."
BT: The Trojans are second in the conference with 11 picks. What are they doing schematically that creates so many turnovers on the back end?
DW: What they're not doing is blitzing. They're rushing three or four and trying to help out the back line guys as much as possible. Not sure it's as much a scheme thing although coverage is the key here for them but the improvement in the players with fifth-year medical redshirt senior Gerald Bowman's maturity in stepping in to lead this group after Josh Shaw's suspension has been a big part of this. DB coach Keith Heyward has had great success making this group -- that in two of the previous three seasons did not have a dedicated secondary coach -- much more ball-aware. That's easier to do with leading interceptor Su'a Cravens being moved around so he can make plays on the ball and in space. Quarterbacks better always know where he is.
BT: What lessons has USC learned from the Boston College game that have colored the rest of the season, as the Trojans have gone 4-2 since?
DW: Not sure they learned anything that's helped them go 4-2 when they should have gone 6-0. But they probably have figured out how to defend the option after the BC game without panicking and how if you don't show up ready to play, you will probably get beat. Unfortunately they were ready to play and dominating in the two games they lost by not finishing well against ASU and Utah although that was hardly on the players. Hopefully the coaches have learned.
BT: USC’s last game was unusual both for the Trojans and Washington State, in that USC scored a season high 44 points, and the Cougars were limited to under 28 points for just the third time this year. Given that Cal’s passing game and Washington State’s entire offense share some philosophical underpinnings, what did the Trojans do so well to limit Washington State’s air attack?
DW: They played the ball well, kept everything in front of them, tackled well in space not allowing many yards after the catch and still managed to get decent pressure on the quarterback, although the Connor Halliday injury was really a shame when the pocket -- and Leonard Williams -- collapsed on him. I'm guessing Cal will see much of the same game plan, although USC knows Cal is much more balanced and can hurt defenses with its run game. So it's a much more demanding prep week this week. They think Jared Goff and the Bears are pretty good.