August 18, 2009
Probing for reasons USC's seven-year Pac-10 dynasty may be vulnerable. Part of the Doc's Pac-10 Week.
I realize this is a very weird thing to say about one of the teams that annually leads the nation in hype, but it's possible USC's defense has actually been underrated the last two years, if you take them together. Consider that the '07 D, returning 10 regulars from a good-not-great unit in 2006, finished second nationally in both yards and points allowed, and in the top ten in rushing, pass efficiency, sacks and third down percentage. Even after losing three first round picks, the veteran group last year held eight opponents to a touchdown or less, including Ohio State and Notre Dame; finished in the top five nationally in rushing, passing, pass efficiency and third down percentage; and finally allowed fewer points per game than any defense of the last decade.
The mind, it boggles at the talent on those two units, which produced 11 All-Pac-10 picks (not including back-to-back appearances on the first team by Taylor Mays and Rey Maualuga) and sent 13 players to the draft, nine in the first two rounds -- in two years. If safeties Mays and Josh Pinkard follow the same route next spring, every single regular starter from the 2007-08 Trojan defenses will be on the next level, an absurd ratio even for USC.
So as used as we are to writing off attrition here with the "USC doesn't rebuild, it reloads" cliché, it's worth considering that the core of those awesome defenses -- namely last year's seniors: Maualuga, Brian Cushing, Fili Moala, Kyle Moore, Kevin Ellison and Cary Harris -- was really a special group that won't be easily, or at least not immediately, replaced. This is an obvious concern when you put into perspective just how inexperienced this fall's defense is going to be by comparison:
For most teams, that level of staggering attrition would be crippling; for SC, it only seems like a mild concern because, well -- forgive me, please -- the Trojans are reloading from a talent standpoint. Of the top 45 on this fall's two-deep, only four on the entire team -- offensive linemen Charles Brown and Nick Howell and safeties Josh Pinkard and Drew McAllister -- were rated as three-star recruits; literally everyone else at the top of the rotation at every position, even fullback, was a four or five-star guy. There is a very high probability that every single player who plays a meaningful down on defense (with the exception of Pinkard, an injury-plagued sixth-year senior with a likely pro future if he remains healthy) was ranked by Rivals among the top 250 players in his class regardless of position out of high school, and most were in the top 100. The immediate observation in the spring was that the new linebackers are a little bit faster than the group that just went en masse on the first day of the draft.
Again, though, the '08 defense defies comparison, even by the very, very high standards set by its predecessors -- looking at scoring defense alone, the Trojans allowed a hair over 17 points per game from 2002-07, one of the best numbers in the country but still almost twice the nine points per game it allowed by last year's headhunters. And they still had one breakdown, allowing 343 yards, 27 points and a nearly 18-minue clock advantage to Oregon State, that cost them a shot and the national championship and very nearly kept them from the conference championship and Rose Bowl send-off that have come to seem like a practical birthright.
It's almost a mathematical certainty that this defense must regress. Even if that only means two letdowns instead of one, that could be the difference between their eighth consecutive Pac-10 triumph and the long-awaited eulogies for the conference dynasty of the decade.