They've come farther that Clancy Pendergast thought USC's inexperienced defense could come in 12 games.
Asked if this defense had lived up to the hope he had for it, Clancy said in his own often inscrutable way: "We're probably a little bit above it."
"Everybody's back on the [band]wagon for us," Adoree' Jackson said at the Thursday morning press conference for the USC defense. Even their demanding defensive coordinator, not known for going overboard in the praise department. But there was no avoiding it on this day.
Asked who had exceeded his hopes and raised their game, Clancy ticked off the names of Rasheem Green, Uchenna Nwosu, Cameron Smith, Marvell Tell and Iman Marshall.
"They've all grown a lot in the system," he said after that 1-3 September start.
"You've got to get good at something before you move on. "As a unit, all these guys have really bought in," Clancy said. Starting with Iman. "He bought in and can only get better."
Then there's Nwosu. "Uchenna has been great, playing a new position," Clancy said. "He's got a really bright future . . . it's easy to see he's one of our top three to five guys on our defense."
From that group, only Cameron, coming back from ACL surgery, had ever played a great deal. The rest were learning -- how to play and how to play a completely new system. But there were plenty of others.
On senior inside linebacker Michael Hutchings, "There's not a guy we're prouder of," Clancy said of the De La Salle kid getting a chance to show what he could do. Which was a lot.
When Clancy says one of the best things this group does is "they communicate with one another," he's talking about Michael. And when you talk to Michael about how this team will handle the loss to academics of Nwosu's backup, Olajuwon Tucker, he says they're ready for it.
"I think Connor Murphy and 'Wole [Olowole Betiku] can do it," Michael says. "Those guys have stepped in."
While Clancy didn't put those names out, when they were mentioned to him, he didn't disagree. "They've done a nice job and certainly have worked hard and understand the defense enough to play."
That's been the key. For someone like Rasheem Green, going from a two-gap responsibility to the one-gap techniques this USC defense relies on has given "the D-line the hardest transition . . . he's a diligent worker."
Then there's Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, who has given the defensive front the big push they've needed all season even if, when asked about USC's NCAA troubles, Stevie simply says: I just got here."
One thing that's coming through for Stevie, Clancy says, is his film work on the player he'll be lined up against. "He's done a nice job studying his matchup," Clancy says of an NFL prospect he classifies as "no question.. I know I'm getting a lot of calls about him . . . A lot of teams are looking for a specific body type and there are not a lot of guys like that."
Stevie fits into Clancy's plan for stopping outstanding Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. "The first guy has to get him on the ground and then we have to put a lot of hats on him."
"Maybe I'll put some extra stickum on my gloves," Stevie says against an offense that according to Hutchings looks a little familiar. "If you look at them, you'd think they were a Pac-12 team."
And yet, there's a difference. "They have that quarterback-running back duo," he says of scrambling QB Trace McSorley and Barkley. "They both can make plays."
But not just any plays. What sets Penn State apart, especially as a come-from-behind, second-half team, is the kind of plays they make.
"Explosive plays," Clancy says. "We're going over every facet of the game from a situational standpoint but they've been able to come back when they take shots down the field," Clancy says. And it's not just those two. "They have that big tight end [6-6, 252-pound Mike Gesicki], too."
So the USC formula for Clancy in this game is simple:"Obviously the explosive plays down the field would be the main thing [USC must stop], both the pass and the run."
How they're planning to do that is between Clancy and his Trojans team. Cam Smith says he thinks one thing will help them here.
"I've never been on a team whhere everybody knows every position," Cam said. Of Penn State, "they're a scrappy team . . . they're going to play hard all game . . . it's going to be a fun game." And then maybe the tip here.
"Our goal always is to get pressure on the quarterback," Cam said. How and when, we'll have to wait for the game.
But beyond that, Adoree' had the final upbeat word for this USC team. "We're family. Every group even the punters and kickers, we can relate to one another. That's what makes us special."
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