In any athletic endeavor, a team needs a boost in confidence from time to time.
USC’s defensive unit got one early in the season, a 23-7 victory over favored, third-ranked Oklahoma Sept. 24 at the Coliseum.
“That was a big game for us,” said defensive tackle Dan Owens. “It spurred us on.”
Nose guard Don Gibson concurred, saying: “That was definitely a pivotal game for us. It told us that we could play with anybody.”
USC held Oklahoma’s running game to only 89 yards, and the Trojans have been shutting down teams ever since.
The 8-0 Trojans have allowed an average of only 74.1 yards rushing and rank third nationally in that category.
USC’s first line of defense is composed of tackle Tim Ryan, Owens and Gibson. They’re all underclassmen on a starting unit that has only one senior, cornerback Chris Hale.
“They’re the most consistent and the strength of our defense,” USC Coach Larry Smith said of the defensive line. “They’ve come up with big plays and they’ve been dominating at times.”
That wasn’t the case 2 years ago.
Ryan was a freshman and Owens a redshirt freshman, and Gibson was awaiting his chance to play. The line was maligned, yielding an average of 174 rushing yards a game, 100 more than it permits now.
“Looking back now, we weren’t playing the type of football we should have been playing,” Owens said. “Lack of experience was a factor. We had an average defense but, for USC, that shouldn’t have been.”
Gibson got his opportunity to play last year as a redshirt freshman, joining Ryan and Owens, both sophomores then, on the defensive line. The Trojans showed some improvement over 1986, yielding an average of 149 yards rushing.
Now they’ve set a new standard.
“It’s nice how we’ve come together,” said Owens, referring to the entire defense. “I knew we had a good defense, but I didn’t think we’d achieve what we have so far.”
Said Gibson: “For the most part, we’ve stayed healthy and have the same people in there week to week. We have confidence with each other.”
As a nose guard, Gibson is in the middle of the traffic stream on defense. Ryan, who has been more publicized than his teammates, said that Gibson is a quick thinker while being blocked from every angle.
He has still managed to record 45 tackles along with 4 sacks.
Owens, who plays on the weak side of an opponent’s offense, has 52 tackles, 6 sacks and 8 pass deflections.
“Dan is really underrated,” Ryan said. “I have seen him do things to other guys on film that I haven’t seen done to any other player. He takes guys 5 yards into the backfield and just throws them.”
USC has what it calls a gap control defense, in which the front 7 defensive players, the down linemen and linebackers, are each responsible for a gap, or a hole.
The linemen’s first priority is to stop any running play. Then, on obvious passing downs, they go after the quarterback.
There are some tricks involved called twists, such as Ryan and Owens exchanging rushing lanes in an effort to get to the passer.
“Basically, it’s just changing gap responsibility on the pass rush,” Owens said.
Like most defensive linemen, Owens and Gibson would rather rush a quarterback who doesn’t stray from the pass pocket.
Therefore, they’d just as soon not go after their own quarterback, Rodney Peete, who can turn a passing play into a track meet.
“I almost caught him once (in practice) when I weighed 225 pounds,” said Owens, who now weighs 260 pounds. “That was the only time I’ve ever been close.”
Owens, a former star at La Habra High School, said that he always wanted to go to USC.
But for Gibson, who had outstanding credentials at El Modena High School in Orange, there was some pressure on him to enroll at Arizona.
His older brother, Boomer, was an established linebacker at the school and Smith, who was Arizona’s coach at the time, tried to recruit the younger brother. But Don chose USC.
“I don’t have a good explanation for the decision,” Gibson said. “My brother and I are great friends. But, while growing up, I was always Boomer’s younger brother. Now, if he comes to see me here, he can be my brother instead of me being his brother.”
Gibson’s father, Frank, played for Army as an end on offense and defense and was captain of the 1960 team.
“He told me recently that he’s going back to West Point for the 30th anniversary of Army’s last undefeated team in 1958,” Gibson said.
USC will play Arizona State (6-3 overall, 3-2 in the Pacific 10) Saturday at Tempe, Ariz. The Sun Devils have won 3 straight conference games and have beaten USC in 5 of 7 meetings. . . . ASU Coach Larry Marmie said Tuesday that Paul Justin, who had replaced Daniel Ford as the starting quarterback, is doubtful for the USC game. He has a bruised breastbone. Trailing 24-7 in the fourth quarter, Ford rallied the Sun Devils to a 30-24 victory over Oregon State Saturday.
USC’s Martin Chesley, a backup tight end, underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee and is most likely out for the rest of the season. Frank Griffin becomes the No. 2 tight end behind Scott Galbraith. Paul Green, once the No. 1 tight end, who has been inactive with a sprained ankle, been cleared to practice. Coach Larry Smith said that tailback Aaron Emanuel, who hasn’t played since the Oklahoma game Sept. 24 because of a badly sprained ankle, will be available for Saturday’s game. “He’s not limping, or favoring his ankle,” said Smith, who wants to get Emanuel into the game for a few series. However, Scott Lockwood remains the starting tailback. . . . Smith said that wide receivers Erik Affholter and Gary Wellman are practicing and will play against ASU. Wellman missed the Cal game Saturday with a sprained ankle. Affholter came out of the game in the third quarter with a slight ankle sprain. Smith also said that tailback Steven Webster had reinjured his hip and won’t play against Arizona State. Strong safety Cleveland Colter, who aggravated a knee injury, will be available to play ASU but may not start.