Unexpected defensive line issues
September, 26, 2011
By Pedro Moura | ESPNLosAngeles.com
After the Trojans opened the 2011 season with three straight wins, USC defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron cautioned observers that his line, again hyped as perhaps the team's best unit, hadn't yet broken out to the extent he expected this year.
"It hasn't happened yet," Orgeron said at the time.
It still hasn't.
It certainly didn't happen in the Trojans' 43-22 loss to Arizona State on Saturday in Tempe, when USC produced just one sack and gave up 169 rushing yards. Sun Devils quarterback Brock Osweiler was rarely pressured and consistently on target with his throws. The only times the Trojans got to him were when they blitzed, and that wasn't very often.
This is a problem, a huge problem -- maybe USC's biggest other than its woeful offensive line, which is going to be a year-long issue, it's now abundantly clear.
But the defensive line wasn't supposed to be an issue. It was supposed to be an asset, six talented pass-rushers sharing four spots and rotating in and out at Orgeron's preference.
Instead, in Saturday's game, only one of those six played well, junior defensive end Nick Perry. Christian Tupou did what he was asked to do at nose guard against a tough opponent in Sun Devil center Garth Gerhart and reserve tackle George Uko recovered a fumble that was later called back, but Devon Kennard, Wes Horton and DaJohn Harris all failed to generate pressure.
"I was really disappointed in our play up front," Orgeron said after the game. "We didn't play very well.
"It was nothing fancy. Just football."
The Trojans will face another talented offense in Arizona in five days, although the Wildcats' offensive line is young and inexperienced and prone to mistakes. Quarterback Nick Foles was sacked five times by Oregon in Arizona's 56-31 loss in Tucson on Saturday.
The task at hand now is simple: At some point soon, this defensive line needs to prove that it is elite, as has been tossed around by some on this team -- or settle into its status as an average unit capable of being beaten head-to-head by a number of Pac-12 lines.
Monte Kiffin shouldn't have to dial up blitzes from linebackers in order to get a pass rush, but that's become the norm for this team. If Kiffin wants his players to get to the QB, he has to bring another player.
And, going against smart play-calling, that opens up holes for opposing offenses to exploit, which is exactly what the Sun Devils did Saturday and what the Wildcats themselves did a year ago, when Foles tore up the Trojan defense for 353 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions on 32-of-48 passing.
Juron Criner is the best receiver USC has faced this season and one of the best the Trojans will face all year long. He also is essentially a mismatch in a box, eight inches taller than USC's No. 1 corner Nickell Robey.
But forget all of that. Foles will complete his passes and Criner will get his catches.
What needs to happen for USC to beat Arizona is simple: the Trojans' front four must produce, must generate pressure, must get Foles on his heels on a regular basis.
If they can do that, USC should win.