USC Football: Justin Wilcox's Defense Will Bend but Not Break

Mike Luca@@italian_trojanContributor IIJanuary 9, 2014

After Clancy Pendergast's one-and-done, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox hopes to carry over Washington's momentum into USC's revival.
After Clancy Pendergast's one-and-done, defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox hopes to carry over Washington's momentum into USC's revival.Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It's been over a month since head coach Steve Sarkisian has moved back into USC housing, and he's finally finished assembling his roommates. While notably retaining offensive play-caller Clay Helton and wide receivers coach Tee Martin from the incumbent staff, Sark's most significant hire is fellow Washington departure and defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox.

In this case, stability better serves the camaraderie between Sarkisian and his predominantly piggybacked coaching staff, rather than the players on the roster. At least within the confines of Clancy Pendergast's established standards during his brief tenure, the defense under Wilcox's management should suffer a temporary backslide.

In the long run, though, change doesn't guarantee neither positive nor negative, but simply differentiation. For USC's sake, hopefully change yields similarly prosperous results, and preferably fast.

If anything, look no further back than this past Fight Hunger Bowl to witness the potential of Wilcox's 3-4 in action.

The Huskies enforced the classic bend-but-not-break approach against dual-threat quarterback Taysom Hill and BYU. Hill alone accumulated 426 yards of total offense (293 passing, 133 rushing), a figure that suggests Washington was caught guessing throughout the game and walloped on the scoreboard.

Nonetheless, the defense asserted itself when it needed to most, applying costly pressure (led by end rusher Hau'oli Kikaha's three sacks) and holding the Cougars offense to merely one touchdown and three field goals (and one miss) inside their own 30.

Hau'oli Kikaha's three sacks elevated Justin Wilcox's stock and Washington's defense in their Fight Hunger Bowl victory.
Hau'oli Kikaha's three sacks elevated Justin Wilcox's stock and Washington's defense in their Fight Hunger Bowl victory.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

With interim Marques Tuiasosopo (now USC's tight ends coach) leading his first charge, the pressure and spotlight were on Wilcox as he strived to preserve the team's invariability on the defensive side of the football, and he impressively delivered. Despite the allotted yardage, Washington never gave up the detrimental big play, as BYU's longest was only 23 yards, and the Huskies cracked down with everything in front of them in the red zone.

Still, it remains a tall task to assume Southern California duties and the nation's No. 1 red-zone defense (62.8 percent compared to Washington's 56th-best 82.6 percent, per

Though a short-lived era, Wilcox will be hard-pressed to replace Pendergast, whose shapeshifting 5-2 pass rush was revolutionary for the revitalization of USC's defense on the national spectrum. The Trojans' miraculous 2013 campaign was punctuated in the Las Vegas Bowl, where their healthiest rotation thus far utterly disrupted the rhythm of the country's top passer Derek Carr, limiting him to 216 yards and 2-of-14 on third down.

USC's finale garnered attention over that of Washington, since formerly ranked Fresno State is a more highly touted opponent than BYU, and Hollywood prowess and scandal usually take precedent over cloudy Seattle.

Statistics insinuate the warranted press is justified for the most part, but Wilcox and the Huskies ultimately weren't too far off.

Based on statistics, Pendergast's unit ranked inside the top 20 in rushing defense (15th), total defense (13th), third-down defense (12th) and scoring defense (16th). With the amount of yards Washington conceded (388.5 YPG—good for No. 55 in the nation), one could imagine that its defense would be considerably inferior en route to a 6-6 record or worse.

On the contrary, by embodying that bend-but-not-break mentality as opposed to USC's high-risk, high-reward attack, the two schemes proved to be equally accomplished with nearly identical scoring defenses (USC's 21.2 points per game allowed compared to Washington's 22.8), interception totals (17 to 16) and turnover margin (plus-seven to plus-five).

Two key categories Washington actually exceeded USC in are team passing efficiency defense (107.42 to 111.89, respectively)—which intrinsically factors opposing completion percentage, interception ratios and passing yardage allowed—and sacks.

Led by departing senior linebacker Devon Kennard with nine quarterback takedowns, Pendergast's ability to create havoc in the pocket was the most renowned component of this Trojans defense. Thanks in part to Kikaha's 13 sacks, though, Wilcox's squad was fourth-best in that department, outnumbering USC by a count of 41 to 35.

Whose approach is more triumphant—Pendergast or Wilcox?
Whose approach is more triumphant—Pendergast or Wilcox?Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Again, credit the Hollywood spotlight.

All in all, both Pac-12 schools concluded 2013 with only four losses (and for Washington, that is its best mark since the 2001 Rose Bowl season), similar records against bowl-bound teams (USC: 5-4Washington: 4-4) and sightings in the final AP poll.

While USC's shocker over Stanford is regarded by many as one of the most emotional triumphs of the year, the Huskies were able to thwart Washington State...a seemingly simple feat for a superior defense and competent offense. They also upended once-No. 19 Boise State in a 38-6 blowout back in Week 1, winning the third-down battle (11-of-15 for Washington; 8-of-19 for Boise State) in arguably their stoutest showing.

It's truly a testament to how two dissimilar paths can direct themselves toward the same destination of success. Sarkisian accepts the responsibility as head coach, but the offensive guru felt substantially at ease focusing primarily on offense with Wilcox at the defensive helm and clearly enough to rope him along to Southern California.

Of course, with brand-new surrounding circumstances for Wilcox, there will be a definite learning curve. How well equipped is the program and its defensive coordinator in rapidly overcoming it?

First and foremost, Wilcox is accompanied by Washington assistants Keith Heyward (secondary) and Peter Sirmon (linebackers). The transition should be smoother thanks to the cemented cohesion amid the staff in a familiar conference, as all the new coaches—including recently hired defensive line coach Bo Davis as reported by Los Angeles Times' Gary Klein—are introduced to the players and the Trojan way.

As for those players, along with senior casualties Kennard and Morgan Breslin are now eligible juniors Dion Bailey and George Uko as they enter the NFL draft. As alluded to by B/R's Alex Sims, however, with the amount of injuries endured and the finite rotation Pendergast utilized throughout 2013, the losses are nothing USC itself cannot handle.

Jonathan Lockett headlines the incoming recruiting class for Wilcox's benefit, joining a suddenly deep secondary with improved upperclassman Josh Shaw and emergent freshman Su'a Cravens.

In the 5-2, the front seven both illuminates and masks the strengths and weaknesses (respectively) of its secondary, so in USC's return to the 3-4, a back end that can now start holding its own in a base pass rush alleviates pressure on Wilcox.

Plus, there's still the residual services of ESPN All-American Leonard Williams and captain Hayes Pullard. The team is stacked.

Wilcox has never been granted such illustrious talent in his young career, although the limitations in depth due to ongoing sanctions (albeit fading, according to B/R's Kyle Kensing) are a foreign obstacle as well. Pendergast's mastery of the situation superseded the feel-good story of Washington's success to match USC's preexisting draw of the media.

Luckily, Wilcox is another esteemed recruiter in Sark's army, something Pendergast hardly cared for. As two divergent strategies try to yield identical results as done in 2013, that's one crucial difference you can rely on long term.

As impatient as Trojan Nation is in its quest for vengeful relevance, a little bit of time can be spared for this up-tempo renovation to settle in. According to's Bruce Feldman, it did only take Wilcox two years to elevate the Huskies scoring defense from No. 104 to No. 34 in the country.

LA Times' Klein's reports indicate Pendergast gained brilliant likability during his short stint at USC, both for his result on the gridiron and his "feisty" demeanor off the field. If Wilcox and his defense minimize time spent treading water or holding their breath underneath it, then he'll follow suit just nicely.

A word of advice: I hear these players like cookies.


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