Deantre Lewis capped Arizona State's ninth and final scoring drive last September against USC with a one-yard touchdown run. Seven of those drives ended in touchdowns, with five different Sun Devils crossing the goal line.
As kicker Zane Gonzalez's extra-point attempt sailed through the Sun Devil Stadium uprights, Arizona State wrote its name in the USC record book in a dubious category—tied for most points a Trojans defense surrendered in one game.
Oregon set the mark with 62 points of its own the season prior. Defensive lineman Leonard Williams was on the field for both games.
"I never really hold onto things of the past," Williams said last week at Pac-12 media days. "At the same time, you do want to get back on those teams you lost to. You want to be able to beat those teams."
Williams, the leader of a talented defense in 2014, said that such recent missteps fuel the group's motivation. New head coach Steve Sarkisian's arrival is a chance to move beyond the failings of the recent past and an opportunity to replicate the high benchmark set by Trojan defenses of the previous decade.
"[We] want to be more dominant than we have been the last few years," Williams said. "We're definitely going to come out with a chip on our shoulder."
In the offensively inclined Pac-12, defense has proven key to winning the conference championship. Stanford claimed the last two Pac-12 titles by building up from a tenacious defensive unit.
If the Trojans are to win their first conference crown since 2008, they must do likewise. Fortunately for them, they're similarly constructed.
|Key USC Defensive Statistics in 2013|
|Opp. Rush YPG (Rank)||Opp. YPC (Rank)||Opp. Pass YPG (Rank)||Turnovers Gained (Rank)|
|120.3 (14)||3.95 (46)||214.6 (32)||23 (47)|
Sarkisian called the defense's front seven "the strength of our football team."
Last year, Williams powered USC to a No. 14 national rank against the rush. Opponents mustered just 3.95 yards per carry against the Trojans, and three times USC held teams below two yards per game for an entire game.
USC also grounded high-flying passing attacks in Washington State, Oregon State, Cal and Fresno State last season. Of those four, all of which ranked in the top 10 nationally for passing offense, not one reached the 300-yard mark against the Trojans.
The problem for USC's defense came against teams with mobile quarterbacks and zone-read offensive systems.
USC allowed just 14 rushing touchdowns all last year—nine came against Arizona State and UCLA, both of which run zone read.
The Sun Devils and Bruins were also two of just three USC opponents to reach the 30-point mark. The third was yet another zone-read-based offense, Arizona.
The Wildcats did not gash the Trojans for more than seven yards per carry as Arizona State had. Arizona also failed to reach the end zone via the rush, a feat UCLA accomplished five times in the regular season finale.
However, the Arizona ground attack was effective enough to spread the USC defense, which quarterback B.J. Denker attacked through the air for 363 yards—the most the Trojans allowed all season.
"The offense as a whole is really fast-paced. You've got to be ready to line up at any time," Williams said of facing zone-read quarterbacks. "Quarterbacks like [UCLA's Brett] Hundley are really good scramblers, so you've got to be ready to play situationally. They can run at any time, so you've got to be ready it.
"It's challenging," he added. "But we're ready for it."
A new defensive coordinator is at the defensive controls. Justin Wilcox spent two years with Sarkisian at Washington, in that time transforming one of the Pac-12's worst defenses into one of the conference's toughest.
The primary challenge for Wilcox is stopping the zone read, which USC sees throughout its Pac-12 South docket via Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA. Utah should also introduce elements in Dave Christensen's first season as the Utes' offensive coordinator.
"I'm very confident in coach Wilcox and the whole staff," Williams said. "We have a lot of good, returning starters like Josh Shaw, Hayes Pullard and even Antwaun Woods is going to step up this year."
The key to slowing these offenses could be as simple as talent. Last year, when Oregon wore down Wilcox's Washington defense in the fourth quarter, the defensive coordinator told Percy Allen of the Seattle Times Ducks quarterback Marcus Mariota's playmaking abilities overwhelmed the Huskies.
The secondary will play an integral role in USC's efforts to slow zone-read opponents. Dynamic sophomore safety Su'a Cravens is one Trojan to watch, as his speed and ability to read the field could make him a spy against mobile quarterbacks.
With its proven ability to contain passing attacks and skilled playmakers across each unit, the USC defense is that one step away from championship contention.
As this group comes together under Wilcox's direction, a return to the top of the Pac-12 should be imminent—and nights like the Trojans' loss at Arizona State will be a distant memory.
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics compiled via CFBstats.com.