USC slows the tempo, and its winning ways pick up speed
LOS ANGELES (AP) Interim coach Clay Helton has made his imprint on Southern California, and it is decidedly old-school.
The Trojans entered this season committed to running their offense at breakneck speed and preparing to face a similar onslaught on defense. Instead, Helton has slowed the pace dramatically over the last two weeks and reaped the benefits in wins over No. 13 Utah and California.
''When you look at some of the teams that we are playing right now, these high-play teams, you're trying to keep that ball away from them, steal a possession from them, limit a possession for them,'' Helton said.
That approach is unlikely to change this week against an Arizona offense running 79 plays per game, despite shuffling quarterbacks and injuries at running back.
''They are averaging over 500 yards of offense,'' defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. ''They have scored a lot of points. They have been in the 90s and 100s in the play count, so they get a lot of plays.''
Such a high volume of plays requires a defense to be consistently physically and mentally prepared, Wilcox said. Reducing the workload reduces the margin for error, something USC struggled with in losses to Stanford, Washington and Notre Dame, and it was evident as a fresher and more focused defense finished off Utah and Cal.
However, safety Chris Hawkins is confident USC can handle it if the Wildcats are able to push the pace, citing increased depth and focus on conditioning.
''I think we're ready 100 percent. I feel like we're ready for any tempo that anyone has for us.'' Hawkins said.
The defense is also drawing from a touch of the old Pete Carroll philosophy that Helton has instituted, taking the focus in practice off of the next opponent and instead asking players to go all out against one another to match game conditions.
That change has resulted in a more physical defense, Hawkins believes, citing improved play from the defensive front.
''Our run defense has gotten much better since we started doing the practices where we are competing against each other. Now our D-line and linebackers are playing lights out right now,'' Hawkins said.
Practices are noticeably more contentious as a result.
USC receivers and defensive backs were clearly in a foul mood as they went back and forth during drills Wednesday. Freshman corner Iman Marshall leveled tight end Connor Spears and wide receiver De'Quan Hampton took a shot coming over the middle during 7-on-7s, and quarterback Cody Kessler was not shy in letting the defense know exactly how he felt.
''It's good for everybody,'' Hawkins said. ''They are mad at us during the week and they are ready to take out their anger on the other team.''
Hawkins is also willing to vent on Saturdays. He was called for a personal foul against Cal, responding to what Hawkins felt was an unnecessary hit after the play had ended.
''In a perfect world I wouldn't have retaliated,'' Hawkins said. ''We're being more physical with guys. They were trying to cheap-shot us a little bit, and we weren't really having it.''