Don't look now but the USC defensive front that had received a fair share of criticism early in the season has suddenly put together a string of solid performances in a row, and could be a huge key to the Trojans hopes of finishing the season on a high note.
It has started with a commitment to stopping the run, something that has been tested against two of the best rushing offenses in the conference with Utah and Arizona. The Utes came into the USC game with a tailback in Devontae Booker who was averaging over 130 rush yards per game, and was held to 62 yards in a USC victory. Arizona was averaging 265 yards per game running the ball, the No. 11 mark in the country, and even though they were without leading rusher Nick Wilson, it was still a solid effort for the Trojans to hold the Wildcats to 60 yards on the ground.
"For the third week in a row this defensive front has bought in to the physicality needed to stop the run and get after the quarterback," USC interim coach Clay Helton said.
At the center of the recent good play, literally and figuratively, is the duo of Antwaun Woods and Delvon Simmons. The two seniors in the middle of the line were expected to play big roles in attempting to fill the void left by Leonard Williams departure to the NFL, but that didn't happen during the first part of the year and the defensive line took a lot of heat in losses to Stanford and Washington.
In recent weeks, however, things have changed and the USC D-line is controlling the line of scrimmage while still being able to get increased pressure on the quarterback. Simmons, who took over as the starter at Williams' defensive end spot, has 15 tackles, two sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss in the last three games. Woods, who was elected a team captain prior to the season, had his best game as a Trojan against Arizona with six tackles, two sacks and three tackles for loss. There was also a critical fourth-down stop by another interior lineman, Claude Pelon, to help turn the momentum against the Wildcats.
"We want to stop an opponent's strength. With Utah and Arizona, we felt if we could stop the run we could win the ball games, and that's what happened," Helton said. "When I took this job one of the things I wanted to do was show my passion for what they do on defense. I wanted them to feel my presence, to help the defensive front in any way I could. It's probably what I'm most proud of right now, that we stop the run and that we run the ball."
Speaking of running the ball: The Trojans outgained Arizona 229 to 60 on the ground with 177 of those yards coming from freshman Ronald Jones, who set a USC freshman record with that total. It was just the latest in a series of dazzling performances from Jones that is earning him a reputation as one of the best freshmen skill players in the country. And that's not to slight the 85-yard performance from Justin Davis, who certainly had a good day of his own. It's just that something about Jones is different, and you get the sense the Trojans have something special here.
Smith set for Colorado
USC freshman linebacker Cameron Smith suffered a shoulder injury against Arizona that required an MRI exam early this week. Smith was held out of one day of contact drills but took part in the entire practice session on Tuesday, and Helton said he will play against Colorado.
Scouting the Buffs
Colorado started the year 3-1 but has since lost five of their last six games. In their third year under coach Mike MacIntyre, the Buffaloes have made progress on offense with a veteran junior quarterback in Sefo Liufau (completing 61 percent of his passes) and a productive receiver target in Nelson Spruce, who is the Pac-12 career leader in catches with 272. Unfortunately for the Buffs, while they average almost 425 yards and 27.9 points per game on offense, they give up over 428 yards and 28.2 points per game on defense. USC quarterback Cody Kessler set a school record last season with seven touchdowns against CU.
"No. 9 is inspirational to us right now. He's a warrior." -- Helton, when talking about JuJu Smith-Schuster playing against Arizona five days after surgery for a fractured hand. Smith-Schuster had eight catches for 138 yards and a touchdown in the game.