It’s a theme we’ll keep returning to this summer. Can this USC team do two things: Run the ball and stop the run?
And not do so just at times but when they have to and when they know – as do their opponents – that it’s coming.
If . . . and we can’t overstate this . . . if USC can do both, especially early in the season against the likes of Alabama and Stanford, you have to like the Trojans’ chances.
So after just two of this summer’s player-run practices, we’re no longer calling them “throwing sessions” the way the summer workouts were labeled in past years because they’re not. That’s why there are 75 – and closer to 85 when the out-of-town freshmen arrive next week – players here for the hour-long Tuesday-Thursday early morning post-conditioning sessions.
There’s something for all of them to do for starters. It’s not just pitch and catch stuff. That’s the first big difference in the way this team is preparing to be able to run the ball and stop the run. That’s something you do only with 11 players against 11.
And that’s why this team should have more ability to do that in September. Sure, they’re doing it in a padless version now. And they still throw the ball more than run it. Timing matters in the pass game. But they’re also lining up and getting off the ball 50 to 60 times more than many of them would have in past summers.
All those starts and stances – quick starts and stances – add up.
We think about this after watching last fall’s Cal game on one of those “Pac-12 in 60” segments last week with special attention to the end of the game when USC was holding on to a 27-21 road lead and running the ball.
They’d tried and didn’t do so well holding on to a 27-14 lead. And Cal, despite Jared Goff’s presence, managed to run the ball more than it should have against a standaround USC defense that was out-leveraged play after play.
The Trojan defenders were doing the best they could, making the plays that came their way. But mostly they were the passive counterpunchers giving up the edge to the Cal offense after jumping out to a 24-7 lead as they hung in there enough to give the offense a chance to run out the clock.
That’s the big difference we see on defense now. These guys attack, move and force the action on every play in mostly 11-on-11 work, which is also new to USC with the return of Clancy Pendergast and his forcing philosophy.
This defense does not give up leverage on any level and initiates the action, flying to the football following Clancy’s charge to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Two benefits here: for themselves in terms of attitude and for their assignment coordination, spacing and timing.
Blitzing depends on timing, just as pass-rushing depends on individual technique, leverage and speed. It’s what we’ve been seeing here.
USC doesn’t recruit players to hang around and hope things go well. Or shouldn’t. That’s no longer the prevailing sentiment on defense.
Now for their offensive teammates, who are forced to play faster and not just hang out here by this defense, this also has a whole different feel from past summers.
That’s because of the competition we’re seeing. There’s just more of it. Having more players who can play, who want to play and expect to play, helps.
Which gets us to an offensive line group that’s two-deep, and soon will be more than that when everybody returns. Haven’t seen that here in a long time. It’s a result of the tough times in recent years when guys had to play before they were ready and the injuries this group has had to deal with. Now they’re close to being ready.
But going back to that Cal game that Clay Helton cites as one of the examples of what this team hopes to be, it has to be better than that Cal game. The three running backs – Justin Davis, Ronald Jones and Tre Madden – performed well whenever they had the chance and attacked a porous and outmanned Cal defense across the line of scrimmage.
But on the big play of the game, a third and one with 3:00 left and the ball on their own 42, Tre was “stopped dead in his tracks,” we wrote then. The Cal defenders somehow stoned USC’s right side and bounced Tre backwards before, on his sore knee, a determined and desperate Tre kept his feet churning. And did some bouncing of his own, bouncing the play out to the right sideline where he scampered for 14 yards on what was the game-winning play.
One of USC's "grown-man plays," Clay called it, "a confidence call . . . a statement call."
But one that was as much individual effort with a bit of luck to boot. The one play USC had to have, the play USC loaded up the blockers on the right side, almost blew up in their faces. And by Cal.
That’s what this summer is all about. What All-American candidate Zach Banner has to be putting his younger charges through in these twice-weekly settings. When that moment comes this season, and it comes behind Zach on the right side, and USC needs a yard and instead of Cal, they’re looking at an Alabama or a Stanford, it shouldn’t require an extraordinary play by an extraordinary player to get the job done.
This is why they’re here. And what they’re doing. And why it matters.
And finally, it’s why they have a chance if they do. Because for the first time in a half-dozen years, it’s the focus of what they’re doing here.
Just having a focus is something of a change. That that focus is to run the ball and stop the run is the change this program has been looking for.
Nothing matters more now than to make that happen.
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