USC's defense has something to prove

September, 7, 2010
9/07/10
6:01
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"Philosophical" is not a term that often appears next to USC coach Lane Kiffin's name, but it accurately describes how he's responding to his Trojans "good news, bad news" performance at Hawaii last Thursday.

The good news was his offense rolling up 524 yards and 49 points, with quarterback Matt Barkley turning in a nearly flawless performance with five touchdown passes and no picks.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
AP Photo/Eugene TannerLane Kiffin's defense has something to prove against Virginia on Saturday.
The bad news was the Trojans yielding an eye-popping 588 yards and 36 points and not tackling worth a spit.

"One game will not define us," Kiffin said. "Just like it will not define Matt on offense. Let's take a couple of games before we evaluate, before we make big statements about sides of the ball."

That said, Kiffin understands the concerns over his defense, which looked to be a strength entering the season, no matter a completely rebuilt secondary. The hand wringing over one bad game that, nonetheless, still ended up being a win is understandable, he said.

"That's who we are right now because it happened," he said.

See: Philosophical! The Trojans defense fell on a island and everyone saw it.

Therefore, that defense will be looking for redemption against Virginia on Saturday in the Coliseum, USC's only home game until Oct. 2. The Cavaliers beat Richmond 34-13 last weekend, the debut for new coach Mike London, but the Cavaliers only welcome back 12 starters from a 3-9 team that got Al Groh fired.

Moreover, Barkley might be working against a secondary minus its two best players: All-ACC cornerback Ras-I Dowling and junior strong safety Rodney McLeod didn't play against the Spiders. Dowling missed much of fall camp with a hamstring injury, while McLeod has a knee injury.

Another boost for the USC offense: The return of freshman running back Dillon Baxter from a one-game suspension. Kiffin has called Baxter USC's "most talented player."

The last time these two teams met in 2008, Mark Sanchez and the Trojans bludgeoned the Cavaliers 52-7 in Charlottesville. But the circumstances are much different this time. For one, there are two new head coaches. For another, USC is no longer riding a run of Pac-10 dominance to a certain BCS bowl berth. The rest of the Pac-10 took care of the former last fall, and the NCAA took care of the latter this summer.

Still, London said he doesn't see a neutered team.

"When you look at the game [film], you see athleticism -- from everybody," he said. "Even the water boy is athletic and fast."

So what went wrong at Hawaii on defense? Kiffin cited a number of things. For one, yes, it did hurt that the Trojans didn't do much full-contact work during fall camp in order to avoid injuries. That's an explanation for the poor tackling. Further, the Warriors surprised USC when they tweaked their spread scheme with a "pistol" formation.

Kiffin also gave credit to Hawaii: "That is a really good offense, and I think we'll see that throughout the year... They are going to put up lot of yards and points on people if they stay healthy."

Kiffin seemed excited that Virginia's style of offense will be more in the Trojans' comfort zone. He called the Hawaii game "a wake-up call" and expects his defense to be highly motivated after turning in an embarrassing performance.

And, no, the Trojans defense, which started hemorrhaging last year (though USC still led the Pac-10 in scoring defense at 19.8 ppg), hasn't lost its confidence. At least not yet.

"I look for us to play a lot better this week," Kiffin said. "If we play like that three weeks into the season, yeah, we're going to have a confidence issue. We're going to have a lot of issues. But I don't think that's going to be the case. I think our guys are going to really respond well this week."

Oh, and by the way, overconfidence shouldn't be a problem, either

"How we can be overconfident; we haven't done anything yet," Kiffin said.

Ted Miller | email

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