Trojans' blitz defense a no-go

No surprise for Steve Sarkisian that his Trojans team blitzes the least of any of the 65 Power Five conference teams. It's a way to use the strength of the front seven to protect the young guys in the back, he says.

His Trojans team is so ready to go, Steve Sarkisian said. In Tuesday's no-pads, helmets and shorts practice, he had to tell them to cool it.

"I had to tell them to slow down," Sark said, "which is a great place to be" after three days when his Trojans "really competed" and did so with "goods on goods" to get ready for a dangerous Cal team Thursday night (ESPN, 6) at the Coliseum.

But that's not the only place Sark & Co. have told this USC team to slow it down. There's also the issue of blitzing, which in Ryan Abraham's story Tuesday, the ESPN Stats folks have determined that USC blitzes the least of the 65 teams in the Power Five conferences. Just 10 percent of opponents' passing plays have drawn USC blitzes.

To put that in context, Arizona State blitzed 73 percent of the time in its Saturday romp over a turnover-plagued Notre Dame team. For more context, USC blitzed Arizona State just twice the entire game the Trojans lost on that buzzer-beating Hail Mary, the second of two long passing TDs USC gave up to the Sun Devils in the final three minutes.

Asked if he were surprised USC was dead-last among the Power Five teams in blitzing, Sark said "No," he wasn't. "No . . . we've got a really good front seven and take pride in out front four and what they can do and we understand we have some youth in the secondary and we need to take care of these guys and make sure we're minimizing the big play and defending the pass extremely well.

"And even though we haven't blitzed as much, our run numbers have been fantastic," Sark said of a USC team that's allowing opponents just 138.4 yards a game, third-best in the Pac-12. And Sark didn't mention it but USC's 11 interceptions are No. 1 in the conference.

"Our ability to defend the run has been great and we haven't had to devote an extra defender to the box and that has helped our pass coverage," Sark said.

But where it's hurt are those two end-game losing drives against ASU and Utah where the Trojans couldn't get to the quarterback or stop the pass. And lost in the final seconds.

Although now that the USC secondary is maturing, as the 11 interceptions and the strong effort against pass-happy Washington State show, could this be a team that blitzes more in the future? "It could," Sark said.

"You always play to the strength of your team, you try to do what's in the best interests of your football team to be successful," Sark said. "There are going to be games and years when we pass it a lot more than we run it . . . and games and years when we blitz a bunch and when we don't blitz a bunch. It matters who you're playing and what the strengths of your team are and how you put your players in the best position to be successful."

So a USC team that's plus-nine in turnovers going against a Cal team that's dead-even there probably won't feel like it has to bring it -- just don't get beat on a big play or get to the end of the game with a small lead.

Because when it comes down to it, this USC team that was set up as a go-go club on offense is a no-go team when it's time to blitz.

Talking Telfer, Toa and total points

On a day when only Sark was available to the media, here are three quick hitters:

*** Randall Telfer: ". . . is a pro playing college football," Sark said of the senior tight end who is "a leader on the field and in the locker room . . . Randall is the unsung hero in our offense the way we're running the ball" and his time to catch the ball and get his first TD "maybe it'll happen Thursday," Sark said.

*** The left tackle spot: Asked why we haven't seen Aundrey Walker since left tackle Chad Wheeler tore his ACL, Sark said simply: "Toa [Lobendahn] beat him out." Asked if he might like to rotate there, Sark said: "I'd like to win the game."

*** 35 points needed to win? Actually, with this 5-4 Cal team (3-4 in the Pac-12) averaging 41.9 points a game, second in the Pac-12, winning with 35 would be an accomplishment. "You have to look at the track record," Sark said of a Bears team that can go four-wide one play and come out in a heavy set with eight offensive linemen the next.


Freshman safety John Plattenburg has 48 hours to be ready for Thursday night's game, Sark said, in what would be truly a quick comeback from his Sunday right quad contusion that had him carted off the field . . . should he not be able to go in a gametime decision, USC will go with either walkon Matt Lopes or maybe switch Su'a there when there's a need for a backup . . . Gerald Bowman and Leon McQuay III will start at safety as always . . . Soma Vainuku continues his return to special teams and should be ready to go . . . the rest of the team seems as healthy as it's been . . . USC will finish the week with a closed Wednesday walkthrough.

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