LOS ANGELES -- USC heads into its bye week with a 4-1 record, which is right where most of the early projections had it at this juncture of the season.
The schedule to date has not been incredibly tough, and the Trojans have beaten the teams they were supposed to beat at home, while losing to the toughest opponent on the road. Now the team gets to regroup before heading on the road for the next two games, at Cal and Notre Dame.
One of the key points of emphasis for the Trojans over the bye week will be the defense. There was a lot of hope coming into the season that the defense was going to be much improved from 2010. While there have been signs of improvement here and there, the unit is still giving up big numbers in both yardage and points.
A specific area of focus will be the red zone defense. So far this year USC opponents have been in the red zone 17 times and have scored 14 touchdowns (82 percent). In contrast, the Trojans have been in the red zone 20 times and have only scored 11 touchdowns (55 percent).
"The most disappointing part about the Arizona game wasn't all the yards they gained in the middle of the field," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "It was the fact that they scored five touchdowns in five trips inside the red zone. If we hold one or two of those to field goals it is a completely different game."
The bye also comes at a good time for the Trojans to get healthy on defense, particularly cornerback Torin Harris (shoulder) and linebacker Lamar Dawson (ankle).
Kiffin said the Trojans were forced to stay in a base defensive package for much of the Arizona game because Harris' absence depleted their numbers. Harris' replacement in the starting lineup, redshirt freshman Anthony Brown, responded with 10 total tackles. That's a nice effort, but his inexperience was part of the reason USC went to a conservative coverage package meant to protect the corners.
Dawson has missed the last two games, and the impact has been noticeable in regard to starting middle linebacker Chris Galippo. Without Dawson there to spell him, Galippo has been given big minutes. That's not ideal in the heat at Arizona State, chasing around Wildcats receivers. Galippo has struggled at the end of both games, but Kiffin expects the situation to improve when Dawson returns. Not only will Dawson give Galippo a chance to get some rest, Dawson will push him in practice.
One thing that probably won't happen in the bye week is increased practice time for the freshmen. This became a staple in the Pete Carroll era, as the team often would use bye weeks to get an extended look at the freshmen while giving the veterans some rest.
"We're not in the same position now as we were in those years," Kiffin said. "Back then we had everything else figured out with the veterans, and we weren't playing as many young guys, so we wanted to get a look at them. Now we are still figuring things out, and the young guys are playing anyways, so we will just stick with trying to get better with what we have."
Cover 2 vs. spread
There has been plenty of criticism of the USC defense against Arizona, particularly the Cover 2 scheme that was used for much of the game. The Wildcats receivers seemed to have little trouble getting open, and the Trojans didn't appear to make many adjustments through the day.
"This was really the first game we played Cover 2," Kiffin said. "We did it mainly because of the matchups that we saw and the fact that we had a new corner. In general this year we've run more Cover 3 zone with T.J. McDonald in the box.
"When we set a defensive game plan I will give input from an offensive perspective, things I wouldn't want to see from the defense if I was running the opponent's offense. The last thing we want to do in this game was give up the deep ball. It worked in the first half when we got two picks -- it's too bad we didn't repeat that performance as well in the second half."
One of the things the Cover 2 scheme is designed to do is take away the sideline boundaries, and the defenders need to stay in their lanes to do that. This type of system usually works best against a pro-style offense rather than the spread offenses used by teams like the Wildcats. That's because most spread option routes are run inward toward the middle of the field. The USC corners line up on the outside, which means they often find themselves trailing the receiver, an obvious disadvantage against a precise veteran quarterback such as Nick Foles.
"One of the things we're working on this year is simplifying the defenses we have," Kiffin said. "Last year we tried a lot of defenses, we tried to master too much. This year we are trying to learn fewer defenses but to know them well."
One of the keys to successfully running the Cover 2 defense against the spread is the need for quicker athletes, those who can make plays. An obvious example is Dion Bailey, who was moved from safety to linebacker with a lot of success so far. The linebackers and safeties in this defense need to be active and disciplined, such as Bailey, who led the team Saturday with 14 tackles.
The Trojans coaches have been clear about the need for patience as they get their recruits developed. There might not be a better example than Bailey in terms of how that relates to the defensive schemes.
First-year Trojans who have played so far, thus making them ineligible for a redshirt designation this season: WR Marqise Lee, LB Tre Madden, DB Isiah Wiley, RB Amir Carlisle, PK Andre Heidari, LB Lamar Dawson, DL J.R. Tavai, OL Marcus Martin and OL Aundrey Walker.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.