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USC’s Defense Is Still in Need of a Leader

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the most disturbing things about USC’s loss to Memphis State was the Tigers’ 97-yard drive to the decisive touchdown against a supposedly improved defense.

The Tigers lost ground only once in 18 plays and kept the ball for almost 8 1/2 minutes, taking a 17-10 lead with 10:57 left in the game.

Only 72 seconds later, after recovering a free ball on a kickoff, the Tigers scored their third touchdown of the second half to secure a 24-10 victory.

Chris Allen, USC’s defensive coordinator, blamed a halfhearted effort by the Trojans, who were uncharacteristically lethargic against a 17-point underdog.

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“They just played harder than we did,” Allen said. “We can’t let that happen. That should never happen. . . .

“If we don’t play any harder than we did, there’s not a team on our schedule that we can beat.”

Memphis State’s game-breaking drive was especially galling to Allen.

“I’m upset if anybody drives that far on us,” Allen said. “Our attitude is, nobody’s going to drive that far on us. I can’t remember the last time somebody did. It was a long time ago.”

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In was the longest drive against USC in more than four seasons under Coach Larry Smith.

Allen said that it would not be the start of a trend.

“I think it’s going to be a good defense,” he said. “In fact, I know it’s going to be a good defense.”

Allen acknowledged a lack of defensive depth that has grown worse in the last week because of injuries suffered by inside linebacker Gidion Murrell and defensive tackle David Webb.

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In practice last week, Murrell was replaced by Brian Williams, a true freshman from Dallas.

“We don’t have an overabundance of players,” Allen said. “We’re not having a hard time trying to figure out who to play. We don’t have great numbers.”

Another problem in the opener, he said, was that the Trojans lacked leaders such as they had last season in fiery linebacker Scott Ross and quiet, respected defensive guard Don Gibson, who have moved to the NFL.

“We missed a guy who can light some fires,” Allen said. “We’re looking for a guy who can go in there and light ‘em up. And so far, that guy hasn’t emerged.

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“That’s not to say we don’t have some good leaders, but we don’t have a personality who can ignite a team. And of course, you can’t force a guy to be a leader. I can’t go out and say, ‘OK, you’re assigned to be the leader this week.’ It just doesn’t work that way.”

Such a leader might have chastised his teammates at halftime.

Although Memphis State made only four first downs in the first half and failed to convert any of its five third-down situations, USC’s lead was only 10-3.

“It appeared at halftime that we had the game under control,” Allen said. “So I think what it did, in the minds of our players, was convince them that they wouldn’t have to play hard the rest of the way.

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“I’m not saying anybody consciously thought that, but to me, that’s what it looked like. We’re humbled by it. It was just . . . bad.”

Allen predicted few lineup changes for Saturday night’s nationally televised game against Penn State at the Coliseum.

“If you’re going to change a lot of people, the people that you change to have to demonstrate that they play hard,” he said.

Neither starters nor reserves played with much abandon against Memphis State, Allen said.

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“We’ve got a lot of younger guys who haven’t been used to getting themselves ready to play,” he said. “You know, guys come in, they’re on the scout team for a couple of years, they sit in on a few Rose Bowls, and they think it automatically happens. But it doesn’t happen that way. It happens because you play hard.”

It is hoped, Allen said, the Trojans have learned that lesson.

“We’re going to be OK,” he said. “We’ve searched our souls. We all know we’ve got to play harder, we’ve got to coach harder. But at the same time, we’ve got to stay positive. We can’t lose our confidence. We’ve got some guys capable of making big plays, but we’ve got to get it done.”


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