BearTerritory caught up with USCFootball.com beat writer Dan Weber this week for a brief Q&A on the Men of Troy.
BearTerritory.net: What effects have the NCAA sanctions had on this year's team, both on Saturdays and in practice?
Dan Weber: The effects are mostly on the margins. Allowing upperclassmen to transfer without penalty has cost USC two backups who would have played some and provided some depth. DE Malik Jackson is at Tennessee and his position has probably been hit as hard as any, except fullback. D.J. Shoemate, who was the backup there to Stanley Havili, left for UConn to play tailback. That left USC with just one scholarship fullback and it's forced the Trojans to use the multi-talented Havili extra carefully because of the possibility of injuries.
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USC had under-recruited in terms of numbers for years under Pete Carroll so the lack of numbers here wasn't the result of sanctions-which hadn't kicked in-but just bad timing and bad luck. Whatever the reason, USC's numbers force the Trojans to never tackle in practice for fear of injury and that has caused some adjustments in the style of practice. And missed tackles have been a major problem in games.
BT: Defense has long been a staple of USC's teams. This year, the Trojans are ranked 100th in the country in total defense. What happened?
DW: No one knows. Here they have Monte Kiffin, for 26 years one of the NFL's leading defensive minds before returning to the college game a year ago at Tennessee, and he's running the defense with one of the nation's top defensive line coaches-Ed Orgeron-back, and a 12-year NFL vet and very well-respected Joe Barry coaching the linebackers, and nothing works. Blame-or maybe explanations-for the problems have looked to the four new starters in the secondary, switching a player who started out as a defensive end last year-Devon Kennard-to middle linebacker.
Injuries and lack of depth at defensive end have certainly slowed USC down but to have that kind of complete breakdown seems also to point to scheme, and the appropriateness of the Tampa 2 scheme and its offshoots, which Kiffin made famous as a successful schemer in college with the wider hash marks and much more involvement of run-pass quarterback threats than in the NFL.
USC has been burned twice in a row by opposing quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Jake Locker. The Trojans are dead last in passing defense in the conference.
BT: Would you say that that's the biggest weakness on the team?
DW: No doubt. They don't get a great deal of pressure on the quarterback, seem to have trouble checking one who's a run-pass threat and just do not show coverage skills at either linebacker or in the secondary, where all four starters from a year ago graduated.
BT: Conversely, how good can USC be at stacking the box and stopping the run game?
DW: USC's ability to stop the run is decent despite shaky linebacker play. The front four has talent. Jurrell Casey at tackle is playing great. The defensive ends play the run better than they pressure the passer. With the move of Chris Galippo back to a starter's role at linebacker, after an active game at Stanford last week, that gives them some hope for stopping the run. Right now, they're fifth in the Pac-10 against the run, allowing 141.2 yards a game.
BT: The Bears' strength on defense has been pressuring the quarterback. How well do the Trojans protect Matt Barkley?
DW: USC does a decent job here, with Barkley having been sacked just six times in six games. That's good for third in the Pac-10 behind Oregon and Stanford, so that matchup should be a big determinant in how this game goes. It's one area of strength against strength.
BT: What are USC's biggest question marks?
DW: Linebacker and secondary just jump out at you game after game. At least two of USC's four secondary starters have a long way to go to get up to speed, as does the entire linebacking corps. The other major issue is field goal kicking. USC has lost two straight games at the horn on field goals while having managed to convert just two of six themselves.
BT: Have the Trojans suffered any injuries of note, and what effects do they have on the way USC does business?
DW: The care USC has tried to practice with has played out pretty well in allowing USC to avoid season-ending injuries but it hasn't allowed them to play or practice fully healthy. Tuesday saw four starters and two top backups unable to practice with six more limited. The two starters who would appear to be the longest shots to make it back for the game Saturday would be weakside linebacker Malcolm Smith with a knee sprain and defensive end Wes Horton, out with a back injury for the third straight game.