USC's 52 defense paying dividends

"We feel like we're the best defense in the country," says USC safety Dion Bailey. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- Clancy Pendergast swears he never looked at the film. He never wanted to.

USC's new defensive coordinator knew what last year's defense did or, better yet, did not do. He heard all the record-breaking numbers posted against it last season and wanted them to stay right where they were when he was hired -- in the past.

"I'll be honest with you, I never watched film from a year ago," Pendergast said. "I wanted to give them a clean slate. I wanted to line them up how we best thought they could fit at their particular position and then go through spring practice and evaluate them myself that way."

The way Pendergast lined up his players was the first and biggest adjustment he made. USC ran a 4-3 defense the past three seasons under Monte Kiffin, who resigned after last season and is now the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, and have transitioned into 3-4 defense under Pendergast.

Kiffin's Tampa 2 defense relied on four down linemen and three linebackers with the middle linebacker usually dropping back into coverage. Pendergast's 52 defense features five linemen and two linebackers. The 52 allows for more blitzing and gives Devon Kennard and Morgan Breslin, two of the team's most effective defenders, the opportunity to focus on their roles as linebackers.

While Kiffin's defense has been wildly successful in the NFL, it simply did not transition well to the college game, where players didn't have the time and ability to grasp the concepts and often looked lost on the field. That was certainly the case last season against Oregon, as the Ducks rewrote the record books by tallying 62 points, nine touchdowns and 730 yards -- the most ever against the Trojans.

"I think this scheme is a better scheme for college guys, and my dad would tell you that too, being around it," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "We tried to teach our guys so much. NFL guys like Derrick Brooks and John Lynch could handle it, but I don't know if our guys were able to take all that information and play fast. Clancy's system is not nearly as complicated and doesn't have nearly as many rules. It's a lot simpler. I think it's a better college system."

The statistics three games into the season have certainly reinforced that belief. A unit that was one of the worst in the country last season is now one of the best. USC is ranked fourth in the nation in total defense, second in rushing defense, third in sacks and sixth in interceptions, tackles for losses and pass efficiency. The Trojans are also eighth in scoring defense.

"What we set out to do in January is taking place right now through three games," Kiffin said. "We're a physical team. We're hard to run the ball against, and we run the ball well on offense. We're very aggressive."

When Kiffin sat down with Pendergast in January while he was looking for a new defensive coordinator, Pendergast stressed the need to have an aggressive defense that disrupted the offense and forced turnovers. He talked about the simplicity of his system and how it could be easily grasped over one offseason. He pointed to taking the Arizona Cardinals from last in the NFL in total defense to the top half of the league in his first season as defensive coordinator and doing the same at Cal, where the Bears went from seventh to first in the conference in total defense in his first season.

"We talked about the things I like to do defensively in my past," Pendergast said. "It was an opportunity to look at the skill set of the players and where they might fit and how we could best utilize the players that are here."

Kiffin was particularly impressed with Pendergast's understanding of the different offenses being run in the conference and his philosophy for slowing down the spread offenses that had given USC so much trouble in the past.

"His presentation for his plan for the different styles of offense in this conference was very unique," Kiffin said. "He has a very specific plan when he plays certain styles of offense. That's so critical now in college football and especially in our conference. He's done an unbelievable job. I don't know how you could do much better."

As USC defensive players gathered around the team's training facility after practice Wednesday, they all talked about being able to play faster and more freely under Pendergast's system. Players who had to cram to understand the basic concepts of the Tampa 2 last season say they've been able to essentially master Pendergast's 52 defense after a couple of practices.

"His scheme is much better to go against spread offenses that we're playing against," said USC safety Dion Bailey, who has a team-leading 21 tackles this season. "Last year, we had a more professional defense that is better to go against pro-style teams. Coach Pendergast's scheme is great, and he puts us in the right places. He knows how to dial up pressure, and he calls the game great. His scheme is great for who we have and who we're going against."

USC's defense under Pendergast will get its first big challenge Saturday when the Trojans face Utah State, which ranks eighth in scoring and 12th in total offense. As well as USC has played on defense, it must be noted that its first three opponents, Hawaii, Washington State and Boston College, rank 121st, 77th and 113th in total offense.

Utah State's Chuckie Keeton has thrown for 923 yards and 12 touchdowns with one interception and is completing 78.1 percent of his attempts through three games. He is also the team's leading rusher with 187 yards and one touchdown.

This would previously be the type of offense and the type of quarterback that would give USC's defense nightmares, but the Trojans think this season and these types of games will be different under Pendergast.

"We feel like we're the best defense in the country," Bailey said. "Last year, we would come into games and adjust to teams, but with Coach Pendergast, offenses have to adjust to us. We do what we do, and we're taking the approach that we're going to do it better."