Preview: USC’s defense still looking for first interception
LOS ANGELES — Southern California has broken up the most passes in college football this season.
However, none of those 29 plays have resulted in an interception for the Trojans, one of five FBS teams without a pick. The other 12 teams with at least 20 pass breakups have produced an average of 4.75 interceptions, including Alabama and Illinois with seven each.
It is an oddity USC would like to resolve against Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate on Saturday.
“Believe me, we talk about it a lot. Maybe we’re trying too hard,” defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said Wednesday night. “I think a lot of times in my career the turnovers kind of come in bunches, so hopefully sometime soon that will start falling in our favor. But it’s definitely something that we’re not happy about.”
USC (2-2, 1-1 Pac-12) has taken steps in an effort to get that elusive first interception. There have been extra sessions for defenders to catch balls after practice. Pendergast has stressed to the secondary the importance of reading the eyes of the quarterback and footwork of receivers to know where the pass will go.
There could be schematic reasons contributing to the lack of interceptions, coach Clay Helton said. Pendergast prefers to employ man coverage, which can limit opportunities for defensive backs to break on the ball compared to a system rooted in zone principles.
And some of it might come down to luck, as Helton pointed to the number of tipped and batted passes USC had in its 3-point win over Washington State.
“Got it straight up in the air, and it felt like the ball was up in the air forever. We just didn’t come down with it,” Helton said.
USC intercepted two of Tate’s 31 pass attempts in a 49-35 win last season, the Wildcats’ only loss during a six-game midseason stretch where the dual-threat quarterback went from unknown backup to Heisman Trophy candidate. Tate was more dangerous as a runner than he was throwing the ball against the Trojans, rushing for 161 yards and one touchdown compared to his 146 yards through the air with two touchdown passes.
Arizona (2-2, 1-0) has been asking Tate to do more as a passer, in part because of an ankle injury that has limited his mobility and in part because of scheme changes under new coach Kevin Sumlin. After attempting 170 passes in nine games as the primary quarterback last season, Tate threw a total of 99 passes in the first three games of his junior season.
Helton believes the new staff and system have led to significant growth by Tate as a passer, notably with his deep ball accuracy.
“He drops it in the bucket, and his kids (wide receiver Shawn) Poindexter and (Tony) Ellison and Shun Brown are making plays for him. You put (running back) J.J. Taylor with 260 yards of passing, that’s a dangerous offense,” Helton said.
But USC has not forgotten about Tate’s mobility, with Helton putting an emphasis on keeping “probably the most dangerous quarterback that we’ll face all season as far as being able to create” from getting the chance to improvise.
“And you see some of the dimes he is dropping in on deep balls once a play has broken down and in scramble (mode),” Helton said. “For us, we’ve got to be able to keep him in the pocket and keep him contained. That’s the key to the game.”
And if USC gets chances to intercept Tate, freshman cornerback Olaijah Griffin is confident the defense will finally deliver on all those pass breakups.
“We’re not thinking about the negative parts about it,” said Griffin, who could make his first start against Arizona. “We know we’re getting our hands on the ball. Now we just need to execute and make plays now.”