Justin Wilcox talks defense

USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox talks about where the Trojans need to improve.

USC has blown two, almost three, games in the fourth quarter this year. Where the blame goes, that’s up for opine. But one thing is certain: if this keeps up, USC will see more losses in its near future. Much of the blame for the late game failures has been placed on Justin Wilcox’s shoulders. Despite the tough losses, Wilcox still has confidence in his defense in the waning moments of games.

“I think you always think that,” Wilcox said. “If you’re not, then you probably shouldn’t be out there, as a player, as a coach involved in the game. It’s the want-to, the belief in yourself, the belief in what you’ve been doing and having the self discipline down in and down out every single time. The confidence is such a critical part of it. It all matters. It’s preparation, it’s your muscle memory, techniques that you create in practice. It’s all those things so it’s not something brand new, so it’s not a brand new feeling… That’s college football, man. That’s what you sign up for. You want to be the guy on the field when it’s that situation. I think that’s learning to embrace that challenge and be excited about those situations and the challenge it puts on you, puts on us and we obviously got to execute and finish better. That’s been an M.O. of ours, unfortunately, so far this year and that’s something we got to change. We got to practice and coach better, and we got to execute better.”

The Trojan defense was backed up late in the game on Saturday night against Utah and the chances of pulling out a victory were looking slim to none. As soon as Utah’s wide receiver came in motion from left to right and USC fans saw John Plattenburg struggling to weave his way through his teammates, they knew the Trojans were about to suffer their third loss on the season. It was tough for Wilcox to watch and besides stopping the play entirely, he would have done some things differently.

“Yeah, the execution of the play obviously wasn’t where we needed it to be,” Wilcox said. “We talked about it coming out of the timeout. We even had the opportunity to call another timeout. We felt good about our leverages, our alignments. We weren’t able to execute it. You ask the question, ‘What would you do different?’ Well if we didn’t execute, then you’d do everything different. Can we apply that play better? Absolutely. In that call? Absolutely. But you’re still on the half-yard line and there’s a couple things that are going to show up: the sprint right rub and the inside zone, hand it to him, see if he can get a touchdown in 12 seconds.”

Head coach Steve Sarkisian recently said that the defense is more of a coverage defense due to the inexperience in the back end, meaning the defensive calls tend to help give the defensive backs some more support than usual. As a result from this defense, less blitzes are called, sometimes giving the quarterback more time to pick apart the defense. Rather than seeing this as a sign of where they are at as a defense, Wilcox sees it as just trying to make the right calls.

“We look at every game, matchup wise, what we think gives us the best chance to win in situational football,” Wilcox said. “Whether it’s the first and second downs, whether it’s third downs, whether it’s two minutes, four minutes is little bit of a different category, whether it’s red-zone, we look at it situationally and we put together the plan based off of what do we think gives us the best opportunity to win the game from a front standpoint, from a coverage standpoint, from a pressure standpoint so I think that’s fair to say.”

Arizona State, Arizona and Utah were able to drive down the field pretty easily on the USC defense late in each one of their match-ups against the Trojans. Wilcox sees something common in each of these fourth quarter breakdowns.

“I think it’s at the end,” Wilcox said. “Our execution of the call. The same plays that they maybe ran in the first quarter that you played well, we didn’t play them as well and i think there’s a lot that goes into it. It’s not one singular thing. Whether it was a certain front, coverage, pressure, man, zone, that’s all debatable and you carry different versions of those to try and give your guys the best chance to win and in the end, it’s the culmination of the technique, the self-discipline to do it the same way so we don’t make a repetitive mistake. Those things are all things we got to continue to learn from. We got to coach better. We got to continue to help our guys improve.

Most Pac-12 offenses in this day and age are hard to stop. There’s no doubt about it. As a defensive coordinator trying to plan against these high octane attacks, does it ever get frustrating?

“I think you have a menu going in on what gives you the best opportunity to play the game, whether they’re attacking you outside, whether they’re attacking you in the run game, what kind of runs are they running, what are they trying to do in the pass game,” Wilcox said. “For example, last week, they turned it into a lot of sprint, boot action so we had some things that we liked better versus that. You want to give the guys the best opportunity based on your strengths and weaknesses and you need a menu to try and cater to that.”

Washington State presents an attack the USC defense hasn’t seen this year: a true air raid offense. The secondary could be in for a long day as the ball will be coming out of Connor Halliday’s hand early and often Saturday afternoon.

“They threw it 88 times last week, so they’re going to spread the ball out,” Wilcox said. “Their quarterback is very talented. They got a talented wideout core, they spread the field, they don’t take very many sacks for the number of times they throw the football by design the way they protect. Wherever coach Leach has been, they’ve always moved the football and thrown for a ton of yards, so it’s challenging.”

Knowing that Washington State throws the ball a ton, how does Wilcox plan to combat this?

“Well, there’s different ways,” Wilcox said. “You mix up the looks, you (change) how many guys you bring, where you bring them from, the zone, the man, the two-high, the single-high, you just want to give them different looks. You can’t sit and play one thing all day… They’re going to complete some passes and we got to be able to tackle in the open field. We got to do a great job of running to the football when we are in a man situation. We got to defend the ball down the field, we got to make some plays plays on the football when it’s in the air, we got to affect the quarterback, it’s a lot of those things… We can’t give them big explosive plays. We got to make them earn what they get.”

Marshall Cherrington will be attending USC and the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism beginning in January of 2015. You can follow him on Twitter @MWCherrington.

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