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USC's defensive woes spread all around during lost season

The Trojans couldn't handle teams with wide-open offenses or power teams like Stanford and Notre Dame. They had problems tackling and in recognizing assignments. And the coaching staff couldn't make in-game adjustments.

December 12, 2012

Arizona moved fast, Oregon even faster. And UCLA could not be slowed down.

The hurry-up offenses that confounded USC's football team this season show no signs of abating — and another is on the way. California just hired Sonny Dykes, he of the quick-paced, no-huddle "Air Raid" attack that will make the Pac-12 Conference even more harried for defensive coordinators.

But USC's defensive struggles this season went beyond its inability to stop spread assaults.

Stanford's offensive line punished the Trojans' front seven. Notre Dame also pushed them around. It all added up to an embarrassing 7-5 finish, a record that landed the Trojans in El Paso for the Dec. 31 Sun Bowl.

Monte Kiffin, the Trojans' 72-year-old assistant head coach for defense, has announced that he will step down after the bowl game. But the Trojans get no reprieve: Georgia Tech runs the triple option, a scheme the Trojans have not faced in years.

Meantime, Coach Lane Kiffin is searching for a new defensive coordinator to help the Trojans avoid a repeat of their lost season. "We need to get this fixed," he said.

Bad to worse

A week after losing, 39-36, at Arizona in late October, USC gave up opponent records for points and yards in a 62-51 loss to Oregon at the Coliseum.

Lane Kiffin rationalized that USC had performed poorly on defense for 51/2 quarters.

When the Trojans finished with four losses in their final five games, he said the Trojans had "a horrible five weeks."

USC's defensive problems were evident throughout a season, though there were some statistical improvements: The Trojans recorded 43 sacks and caused 29 turnovers, which ranks fourth and 14th among 120 major-college teams. They intercepted 18 passes, compared with nine in 2011.

But a defense equipped with outstanding speed was hurt by a coaching staff that did not appear to fully understand spread offenses and lacked the nimbleness to make rapid-fire, in-game adjustments.

Operating out of a 4-3 scheme, USC rarely disguised its intentions. Defensive backs gave receivers too much room to operate. The Trojans also struggled to stop the run — especially against top-flight backs. And they committed far too many penalties and consistently missed tackles.

The Trojans ranked 63rd in total defense, 68th against the pass and 58th against the run. "I definitely would have done a few things different," Monte Kiffin said.

Ronnie Lott, a former USC All-American and college and pro football hall of fame member, acknowledged that it was easy to second-guess without knowing what Monte Kiffin was trying to call on specific plays. But Lott noted "there were moments where guys hesitated" because they were unsure where to line up.

"When you're on the field and not exactly sure where to go and all of a sudden the next play is snapped and there's a formation you don't understand, you can have the best player ever and he's going to be confused," said Lott, an analyst for the Pac-12 Networks.


USC began the season ranked No. 1 in several polls, mostly because of an offense that featured senior quarterback Matt Barkley, receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, and running backs Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd.

The defense also was thought to be a strength, especially a back seven that included nearly every returning starter. But a few significant off-season changes could not yet be measured.

Linebacker Dion Bailey cried when linebackers coach Joe Barry informed players last January that he was leaving to join the San Diego Chargers' staff. Barry, who played at USC and coached 10 years in the NFL, was replaced by Scottie Hazelton, who had spent the previous five seasons at North Dakota State. Kiffin also hired Marvin Sanders, who had coached at Nebraska, to oversee the secondary.

On the eve of training camp, senior defensive end Devon Kennard suffered a season-ending chest injury while lifting weights. A few weeks later, Lane Kiffin announced that cornerback Isiah Wiley was academically ineligible.

Kennard's absence allowed junior college transfer Morgan Breslin to step in and flourish for a defensive line that began the season as the team's biggest question mark but outperformed expectations. However, the Trojans never recovered from the loss of Wiley, a starter the final six games of 2011.

Thus began a parade at the cornerback spot opposite junior Nickell Robey, whom most opponents happily declined to challenge.

Anthony Brown started the first two games, Torin Harris the next four. Injuries suffered by senior Brian Baucham and freshman Kevon Seymour further depleted the underperforming spot, forcing safety Josh Shaw to move to cornerback.

Shaw said tackling problems — along the line, at linebacker and in the secondary — undid the Trojans. "Tackling is the name of the game," he said. "If you don't do that, you're not going to win many ballgames."

Looking ahead

USC is not only looking for a new defensive coordinator — it's looking for players.

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