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What About the D?

Dec. 19, 2005
Dec. 19, 2005

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Dec. 19, 2005

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What About the D?

The Texas and USC offenses are scoring machines, but the winner of the national championship game may turn out to be the team that makes the most plays on the other side of the ball

The glamour boys we know about. We know that before he became the unofficial mayor of Los Angeles, Matt Leinart was a plump, cross-eyed youngster. We know that Reggie Bush went to high school with San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, and that it is thanks to Vince Young that Texas coach Mack Brown has 50 Cent on his iPod. ¶ While we've been hearing for months about the obscenely prolific offenses of Texas and USC, which are averaging 50.9 and 50.0 points a game this season, respectively, we know far less about the guys on the other side of the ball--the wet blankets who want to keep the Jan. 4 national championship game at the Rose Bowl from becoming a scoring orgy. ¶ Which 12-0 team has the better defense? The Longhorns put up superior numbers--such as a No. 4 national ranking in scoring defense (14.6 points per game) to USC's 27th (21.3)--but the Trojans, winners of 34 straight and looking for an unprecedented third consecutive national championship, faced more teams with potent offenses than Texas did this season. Which Griffin (Michael or Cedric) plays safety for the Longhorns, and which plays cornerback? It's a trick question: Like all Texas defensive backs, they are swift, ornery and interchangeable. Which USC defense will show up, the one that allowed 42 points by Fresno State on Nov. 19 or the one that gangster-slapped UCLA all over the Coliseum in a 66-19 win a fortnight later?

This is an article from the Dec. 19, 2005 issue Original Layout

Lawrence Jackson sees that last question as an invitation to deliver a brief lecture on elephant rage. "I saw this on the National Geographic Channel," says the Trojans' sophomore defensive end, who had three sacks and four forced fumbles in that whipping of the Bruins. "When an elephant commits an act of violence toward a human, that elephant is never the same around people. It's the same with an athlete. Once you experience continuous success, you're much more dangerous because you know what it feels like. You know how to get there."

This is Jackson's way of saying that he and his fellow defensive players are much more dangerous now than they were in, say, August, when they played the 98-pound weakling to the USC offense's Charles Atlas in preseason practice. "For the first week and a half," Jackson recalls, "they did whatever they wanted against us"--and from that point on the public "kind of targeted us as the weak spot of the team." The defense wasn't weak. It simply wasn't as strong as the defenses of the previous two title teams. For instance, first-year starting tackles Sedrick Ellis and LaJaun Ramsay played well this season, but they didn't create anything near the havoc wreaked by last year's starters, Mike Patterson and Shaun Cody, who were picked in the first and second rounds of the NFL draft, respectively. "How do you replace all those sacks?" asks coach Pete Carroll. The Trojans didn't--their sacks dropped from 50 in 2004 to 32 this year.

At the start of the season USC's linebackers were perhaps the most talented unit in the country, but five of them missed significant time because of injuries, forcing Carroll to play freshmen Brian Cushing and Rey Maualuga. Though the newcomers did more than hold their own, putting teenagers on the field is risky. Further taxing the cohesiveness of the defense was a rash of injuries in the secondary: The Trojans have gone through left cornerbacks the way Spinal Tap went through drummers. Josh Pinkard, a converted safety, is the fourth player to occupy the position since the spring.

Like Spinal Tap's 1992 album, Break Like the Wind, the 2005 Trojans defense was entertaining but flawed. On Oct. 1, USC needed its biggest comeback in 31 years to beat Arizona State, which led 21-3 at halftime. The Trojans won 38-28, but future opponents took note of how the Sun Devils' Sam Keller picked apart the secondary in the first half. Two weeks later it was Notre Dame's Brady Quinn repeatedly victimizing USC's corners and then carving up the entire defense on an 87-yard touchdown drive that gave the Irish a short-lived 31-28 lead.

While USC showed vulnerability in those games, it also displayed a resiliency that has become the team's trademark. "After the Notre Dame game," says Jackson, "a lot of people looked inside themselves and asked, Is there anything else I can do to help the team?" That soul-searching, and four games against weak Pac-10 opponents, resulted in a stretch of solid defensive play that suddenly came to an end against Fresno State, which rolled up 427 yards in a 50-42 loss to the Trojans. Citing two short fields that USC handed the Bulldogs late in the game, which the visitors turned into touchdowns, Carroll has come to see that result as an aberration, a performance to be flushed and forgotten.

He wasn't exactly a bundle of stress after practice last Saturday, leaning back in his swivel chair and answering questions while tossing a baseball toward the ceiling of his office and catching it. If he seemed serenely confident going into his third straight national title game, it could be because:

•It is his third straight national title game. The Longhorns, on the other hand, are in terra incognita.

•While the Trojans rank only 39th in total defense (the Longhorns are No. 6), they lead the nation in the category closest to Carroll's heart: takeaways, with 37. (Texas has 25.)

•Carroll and his staff are masters of game-planning. "With a month to do what he does [best]," says defensive end Frostee Rucker, "I can't wait to see what he comes up with."

•The worst days are behind this defense. Pinkard, a hard-hitting ball hawk, has stabilized the secondary, and the 32 days between the UCLA game and the Rose Bowl give the linebackers time to heal. In the meantime Cushing and Maualuga are battle-tested for the Rose Bowl--and beyond.

"It's hard to throw freshmen out there in a defense as sophisticated as Pete's," says Monte Kiffin, Carroll's onetime mentor who is now defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "This might be the best coaching job he's ever done."

Kiffin often mentions the "football awareness" he discerned in Carroll, who was a graduate assistant at Arkansas when Kiffin was the defensive coordinator there in 1977. Kiffin saw the same quality in Gene Chizik, an intense young assistant at Central Florida who used to drive from Orlando to Bucs headquarters daily in the late 1990s to watch video, eavesdrop at meetings and pick the brains of Tony Dungy, then the Tampa Bay coach, and a staff that included Kiffin, Herm Edwards and Lovie Smith. Seven years later Chizik is co-defensive coordinator at Texas; at the Rose Bowl he will match wits with Kiffin's son Lane, the first-year offensive coordinator at USC who proved that maybe his heralded predecessor, Norm Chow, wasn't so indispensable after all.

Chizik, who had spent the previous three seasons as the coordinator at Auburn, inherited a very good defense and improved it. The man he succeeded, Greg Robinson, who left to become the Syracuse coach, had imposed a kind of no-dessert-until-you've-finished-your-broccoli rule on his linemen, forbidding them to rush the passer until they made sure the play was not a run. Chizik emancipated the linemen, telling them to play the run on their way to the passer. If a back gets by them, well, that's what linebackers are for. Given their druthers, the guys up front have always preferred to "penetrate and bore holes" in the line, says defensive tackle Rodrique Wright.

"They're both effective [schemes]," says fellow tackle Frank Okam, referring to the two approaches, "but as a defensive lineman it's easier to rush the passer when you're already attacking." It's not like they need to pace themselves. Okam and Wright are but two players on a superb front that goes nine deep. Also, Chizik doesn't get hung up on nomenclature; he'll put an end at tackle and vice versa.

There is similar depth--and disregard for job titles--in the Texas secondary. To get as much speed on the field as possible, for a better chance to contain Bush, Chizik is expected to often play five or six defensive backs at a time. The most talented of those is Michael Huff, who is known as much for his brain as for his big hits. Against Texas A&M, for instance, Chizik called for a blitz by his Sam linebacker, "but our Sam wasn't on the field," says Huff, who moved into that spot, blitzed and forced a fumble. It's nice, says Chizik, to have a guy who can cover for coaches when they screw up.

Huff, who last Thursday won the Thorpe Award, given to the nation's top defensive back, is listed in the Texas media guide as safety/corner. It is a peculiarity of the Longhorns that virtually all members of the secondary play both positions, sometimes in the same series. What's up with that? "When I got here [in 2001]," explains secondary coach and co--defensive coordinator Duane Akina, "our four best athletes were our four cornerbacks. I didn't want them all sitting on the bench."

Huff expects his biggest challenge in the Rose Bowl will be tackling Bush in the open field. Jackson, conversely, knows his toughest test will be limiting the damage done by Young's broken-field runs, a subject that reminds him of another TV show he watched recently. "A unique species of bird--I think it was some kind of hawk--actually hunts in teams," he says. In the show, the birds worked together to tire out a doomed rabbit. "I thought, This is how you play defense."

The Rose Bowl will turn on which unit hunts best together: The statistically superior Longhorns or the much-improved Trojans. "It's not about stats," says Rucker, with a flash of irritation. "It's how you finish."

Easy, Frostee. No need to get defensive about it.

SI.COM

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PHOTOSTEPHEN DUNN/GETTY IMAGES (WRIGHT)  Rodrique Wright
DEFENSIVE TACKLE
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH  Josh Pinkard
CORNERBACK
TWO ILLUSTRATIONSTWO PHOTOSDARREN CARROLL (YOUNG); PETER READ MILLER  Vince Young / Matt Leinart
THE QUARTERBACKS are a combined 66-3 as starters, but they will have to be extra careful with the football on Jan. 4. Young faces a USC defense that led the nation in forced turnovers, while Leinart goes against a deep, athletic Texas defense that ranked sixth in the country.