USC defense takes leading role in win

HONOLULU -- There was so much talk coming into the game about the USC quarterback situation that the new look Trojans defense went somewhat under the radar.

After a disappointing defensive showing in 2012, the Trojans made a change at the coordinator spot by bringing in Clancy Pendergast to install his 5-2 scheme. There was a lot of hope that the transition would bring about instant results.

Well, if the performance against Hawaii is any indication of what’s in store for this defense, USC fans are going to like what they see in 2013.

The defense wasted no time as Dion Bailey got things started with a sack of Warriors quarterback Taylor Graham on the first play of the game.

On the next drive, true freshman Su’a Cravens got the first of what should be many interceptions in his USC career.

There was more pressure on Graham, lots and lots of pressure. Devon Kennard, Leonard Williams and George Uko were coming from every angle and the Hawaii offensive line simply couldn’t keep up. By the time the game was over the Trojans had notched seven sacks and had four interceptions of Graham.

In fact, the interceptions were the difference in the ballgame. USC was able to convert those interceptions into 18 points and they won by 17 points. You do the math.

The timing of the first-half dominance by the defense couldn’t have been better as the Trojans offense struggled to get going early. In fact, midway through the second quarter the score was 5-3 in favor of the Warriors but it was then that Hayes Pullard intercepted Graham at the Hawaii 30. Cody Kessler quickly hit Nelson Agholor with a pretty 19-yard touchdown pass and the Trojans were up 10-5.

On the next Hawaii drive, Graham was picked by Josh Shaw, who returned it 35 yards for a score and a 17-5 USC lead. From that point on the Trojans basically had the game in hand and the halftime stats showed how dominant the defense had been. Graham completed only six of 20 passes in the first half for 56 yards and he was sacked five times along with the three picks. The rushing numbers weren’t any better for the Warriors with 19 yards on 22 carries.

“We didn’t play very well on offense but we were great on defense,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “I thought it was a very good effort and I liked the aggressiveness that we showed. Hopefully we can continue to improve on that as the season goes along.”

The individual stars were all over the place on the USC defense.

In addition to his opening play sack, Bailey added a third-quarter interception and led the team in tackles with seven. It was a good sign for Bailey, who had been banged up in fall camp with a hip injury in addition to making the position switch from linebacker to safety.

Williams had a pair of sacks to go along with five tackles, Uko had two sacks and Kennard had two tackles for loss along with a forced fumble. There were also encouraging performances from players such as Lamar Dawson and Jabari Ruffin.

If there is a concern coming out of the game it is the situation at cornerback. That spot was already a primary area of emphasis because of the coverage duties for the cornerbacks in the 5-2 defense and the loss of both starting corners during the game doesn’t help. Kevon Seymour left the game early after being on the receiving end of a big hit and Anthony Brown was later forced to leave due to an apparent ankle injury.

Torin Harris and Devian Shelton were the two corners for the remainder of the game and there were mixed results. Harris tied for second on the team with five tackles while Shelton had three tackles and both players had two pass break-ups but there were also some obvious coverage issues that will need to be shored up.

“We will have to get back home and check on the status of guys who were hurt,” Kiffin said. “That’s something that we will definitely have to deal with as we get ready for conference play.”

At the end of the day, however, this was a day to celebrate for the Trojans defense. A check of the final numbers shows some pretty impressive stats; on top of the sacks and interceptions there were also nine tackles for loss, a total of 23 rushing yards and four of 18 third-down conversions for the Warriors. That is some good defense.

Now the Trojans return home to face the wide-open passing offense of Mike Leach and Washington State and they do so with some good confidence about their new defense and what is possible in the coming season.