Prior to this weekend, USC was emerging as one of the top stories of the 2019 college football season. The Trojans had a coach on the hot seat, a new offensive coordinator, three different quarterbacks and a bevy of talented receivers that were on the verge of riding the Air Raid offense into a Trojan revival. But Saturday, Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake and his latest collection of talent at defensive back had other plans.
Before USC's 28-14 loss to the No. 15 Huskies, Trojan wide receivers were averaging 274 yards receiving per game on an average of 21 catches. Those numbers had been good for 62% of USC's offensive production. so whether it was JT Daniels, Kedon Slovis or Matt Fink under center, the Air Raid promise of empowering a talented receiving corps had been delivering. But a brick wall was awaiting that passing game in Seattle.
We saw bracketed coverage on USC's Michael Pittman by the Washington defense. We saw a lot of drop-8 coverages that dared Fink to find tight windows and we also saw some man coverage that challenged USC's receivers to win against Washington's defensive backs. What we didn't see was USC win very many of the downfield battles that had fueled the offense in the previous four weeks.
On the day, USC's receivers produced only 139 yards on 12 catches, good for only 37% of USC's offensive production. It was the big-play defense where Washington really thrived though. While it gave up one big play in the passing game, a 44-yard touchdown pass to Pittman in the third quarter when its true freshman safety got caught flat-footed in cover 2 defense, there was really nothing else to speak of downfield. In fact, USC barely found the opportunity to even take shots.
Fink attempted 24 passes to his wide receivers on Saturday and if you exclude throwaways, only eight of those attempts traveled beyond 10 yards. Beyond 10 yards, Fink was two of eight with one touchdown and two interceptions. Everything else was dink-and-dunk work, most of which was tackled for minimal gain.
We've seen Washington have six defensive backs get drafted in the past three NFL Drafts, five of them in the second round. This year's unit came into the season with less name recognition than the past few groups, but Saturday provided an introduction to a few of the emerging stars.
Cameron Williams, that same true freshman that got caught flat-footed on the third quarter touchdown to Pittman also had two interceptions and was named the 247Sports True Freshman of the Week. Washington's first vertical shot came with another true freshman in coverage, Trent McDuffie, and landed out of bounds. The next downfield throw targeted redshirt freshman Kyler Gordon defending a skinny post out of the slot. Then it was Williams' first interception on an over route to Drake London. After failing to crack Washington's three freshmen defenders, Fink opted out of throwing it downfield for the rest of the first half.
USC will look more potent in two weeks when it faces No. 9 Notre Dame and Slovis returns to action at quarterback but the point that Lake's new secondary was trying to make was well received: Washington's talent in the secondary isn't going anywhere.
Michigan's opportunity at redemption
It wasn't just that No. 19 Michigan lost to No. 8 Wisconsin a couple of weeks ago that was eye-opening, it was how it lost. Seeing a Michigan offense searching for identity is nothing new. It's practically a seasonal journey. But to see a Don Brown defense get gashed on the ground the way Wisconsin did was startling.
It doesn't happen much, but when it happens it's ugly. Under Jim Harbaugh, Michigan has only allowed more than 6 yards per carry in a game five times:
|Nov. 28, 2015||Ohio State||L, 42-13||54||369||6.8|
|Oct. 21, 2017||Penn State||L, 42-13||35||224||6.4|
|Oct. 13, 2018||Wisconsin||W, 38-13||29||183||6.3|
|Dec. 29, 2018||Florida||L, 41-15||39||258||6.6|
|Sept. 21, 2019||Wisconsin||L, 35-14||57||359||6.3|
Wisconsin's 6.3 yards per carry in its 35-14 victory was revealing but also perhaps a wake-up call.
While we shouldn't make too much of the Wolverines' 52-0 victory vs. Rutgers on Saturday, we shouldn't flat out reject it either. Michigan held the Scarlet Knights to 46 yards rushing on 29 carries and gained some confidence in the process. Iowa comes to the Big House on Saturday. Which Michigan team is going to show up?
Iowa rushed for 6.9 yards per carry and 351 yards last week against the same Middle Tennessee team that Michigan played in Week 1. According to Football Outsiders, Iowa is ranked seventh in the country in line yards per carry (by comparison, Wisconsin is ranked 47th). According to ESPN's Bill Connelly, Iowa is ranked ninth in rushing success rate and sixth in rushing marginal efficiency. It has a probable first round draft pick at left tackle in Tristan Wirfs. It's also a team that is 1-0 against Harbaugh at Michigan with that win powered by 49 rushing attempts in 2016.
This is both a daunting test and redemptive opportunity for Michigan's defense looking to get back on track. A win behind a stifling run defense gives the Wolverines real clout once again. Another loss and more struggles to slow the run game spells trouble for a team that still has Penn State, Notre Dame and Ohio State coming up.
Three who flashed in Week 5
Indiana freshman duo of QB Michael Penix and OT Matthew Bedford: On Monday of last week it was announced that one of Indiana's best and most important players, left tackle Coy Cronk, was out for the season with an ankle injury. It was bad timing for that kind of announcement with Michigan State and one of the best defensive lines in the country on deck for the Hoosiers. The bad news turned encouraging when Penix, a redshirt freshman, was surprisingly comfortable in the pocket throwing it 42 times. Bedford, a true freshman, looked impressive at left tackle and he was part of a unit that kept Penix clean, limiting a Spartan defense that had 15 sacks in four games to just one sack on the day as the Hoosiers kept it close before losing 40-31.
Arkansas true freshman WR Treylon Burks: While Arkansas continues to struggle to find wins on its 2019 schedule, last weekend's effort in its 31-27 loss to Texas A&M showed some encouraging signs. Among them was the play of the homegrown Burks. Burks only finished with four catches for 58 yards in addition to 35 return yards on two punt returns, but the way he moves and flashes athletically at 220-plus pounds is rare. As he settles in to Chad Morris' scheme and gets more comfortable with assignments, he has the look of a player that will become a problem for the SEC West.
Penn State LB unit: Maryland didn't want what it got vs. Penn State on Friday in College Park, Maryland. Cancelled classes and a blacked-out stadium generated a lot of energy at kickoff but it was very clear very quickly that only Penn State was really excited about all the action in a 59-0 Nittany Lions rout. The most revealing group that spoke to the game's mismatch was the linebackers for Penn State. It wasn't just that Jan Johnson opened up the floodgates early with an interception on the first possession of the game, it was more about the collection of size, speed and tenacity that the group showcased. While college football is moving towards smaller, hybrid linebackers, Penn State trots out Jesse Luketa, Cam Brown and Micah Parsons, all of whom could be mistaken for defensive linemen. In limiting Maryland to 128 yards of offense, there was a race to the football element at play that really speaks to the depth of talent that the Penn State defense presents. Even more encouraging is that some of Penn State's highest-rated prospects in the James Franklin Era are also at the linebacker position and aren't even getting significant reps yet. It sure feels like Penn State's strong recruiting is starting to hit a critical mass.