From 2002 through 2008, USC's defense ranked among the nation's elite every season (other than 2005). Even last year, when the Trojans suffered humbling defeats to Oregon and Stanford, the defense ranked among the nation's top 25, surrendering a respectable 19.85 points per game.
When Lane Kiffin was hired as the Trojans’ new coach and brought along his dad, the highly respected Monte Kiffin, and fiery defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, the general feeling was that a young but talented defense would regain its spark. In fact, Lane Kiffin repeatedly praised his defense during spring practices.
Oh, but things have not gone smoothly. Not by any measure. The defense has been a porous, poor-tackling, undisciplined bunch. It ranks 87th in the nation in total defense (402.6 yards per game) and 60th in scoring defense (24.3 ppg). The young secondary has been particularly clueless, ranking 89th in the nation in pass-efficiency defense.
The Trojans (5-2, 2-2 Pac-10) like to note that they are just three points and a few seconds from being unbeaten and ranked in the top 10. But the dirty secret of that fair assertion is that's indeed the case because the defense yielded drives for game-winning field goals in the waning moments against Washington and Stanford without much resistance.
Monte Kiffin ticks off plenty of reasonable explanations for the shortcomings: new system, new coaches, youth, injuries, etc. But he concludes with the bottom line: "We didn't play well."
"We didn't put it together and we let a couple of games get away from us that we really should've won," he said.
Ah, but there is some good news for the Trojans' defense as it gets ready for a visit from No. 2 Oregon and its ludicrous speed offense.
First, the Trojans' defense is coming off its best performance: A dominant effort in a 48-14 win over California on Oct. 16. The Bears, who trailed 42-0 at the half, finished with 245 yards and 10 first downs.
Second, they've had an extra week to prepare for the Ducks' spread-option offense, which is good because Monte Kiffin is a long-time NFL coordinator without much experience game-planning vs. that type of scheme.
And, third, they will be as healthy as they have been all year on defense. End Wes Horton will return from a back injury that knocked him out of the past three games. End Nick Perry has had extra time to rest a nagging ankle injury. And tackle-end Armond Armstead got time to rest various tweaks. Linebacker Malcolm Smith is still nursing a knee injury but he is expected to play.
But rest wasn't what the Trojans focused on during the bye week. In fact, there was extra running, live tackling -- something Kiffin has avoided due to injury worries for a team that lacks depth -- and fast-paced practices that attempted to match the pace with which Oregon plays.
"We worked harder during the bye week," cornerback Shareece Wright said. "We actually didn't take a break."
The fundamental issue is fairly simple: What the heck are the Trojans going to do against the nation's best offense? Apparently something different. Monte Kiffin has been widely hailed as one of the originators of the Tampa-2 defensive scheme, which it appears the Trojans are finally getting the hang of. But that's not the right defense to defend a spread-option, Lane Kiffin said.
"That defense really does not fit playing against Oregon at all," he said. "That defense is more about stopping the pass."
The Ducks pass pretty well, but they do rank third in the nation in rushing with 322 yards per game.
Of course, it's possible there's a bit of gamesmanship going on here, with Kiffin intimating an entirely new defensive scheme for Chip Kelly's Ducks to try to figure out. Kelly didn't seem too concerned, however, noting that it's typical for the Ducks to see new schemes.
"Usually, what we see on Saturday isn't what we saw on film, because we play a different offense than most everybody else in our league," he said. "We have to make adjustments within the game."
And the Ducks seem to do that well, see 54.3 points and 569 yards per game, with both totals ranking No. 1 in the nation.
The Trojans also have one of the nation's best offenses -- see 37 points and 494 yards per game. At home, you'd figure they'll be able to get some points.
But can they slow Oregon? The younger Kiffin, once known for bluster, was almost reverent describing the Ducks' offense.
"They are so explosive," Kiffin said. "The style they play is like something we haven't seen. Or probably anybody's ever seen."