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Column: Josh Rosen is good, and USC’s defenders were happy to see him

Josh Rosen is good, and USC’s defenders were happy to see him

USC defensive lineman Claude Pelon forces UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen to fumble during the second half, leading to Rasheem Green’s 31-yard return for a touchdown.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As good as UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen already is, and is going to be, USC defenders were actually thrilled to see him Saturday.

The reason was simple: At least he wasn’t Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams Jr.

That may sound strange: Rosen is a projected future first-round NFL pick, while Adams is a future NFL slot back (maybe).

But that’s the thing that makes college football so wildly unpredictable and entertaining: There are no prototypes at this level.

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Guys who end up insurance agents can be as dangerous, sometimes more, as guys who need to hire high-profile agents.

Adams, a gnat dressed in green, tormented USC last week in Eugene with a performance that was a combination of Russell Wilson and Harry Houdini.

Standing only 5 feet 8, Adams made the Trojan defense look like cartoon villains as he played whack-a-mole in the pocket.

He passed for 407 yards and six touchdowns in a 48-28 victory in which he carried only once but may have scrambled for 150 yards behind the line of scrimmage.

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USC’s defense returned home in tatters.

“We got a mouthful in Monday’s practice,” defensive end Claude Pelon said.

USC’s defense could not have looked more different in Saturday’s 40-21, Pac 12 South-clinching win over UCLA at the Coliseum.

The Trojans brought pressure and harassed Rosen into bad throws. They sacked him three times and forced a fumbled that was returned for a touchdown.

Freshman cornerback Iman Marshall, who looked lost last week in Eugene, intercepted two Rosen passes.

“I just did my job,” Marshall said. “I did extra film work. I understood I made a lot of mistakes last weekend.”

USC flipped the page on last week’s flop, which coordinator Justin Wilcox called “unacceptable” and which needed to be fixed.

USC fixed it. The Trojans held UCLA to 367 yards, more than 200 fewer than last week’s 578.

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A lot of it was tightening up coverage and playing with more discipline.

Chris Dufresne and Lindsey Thiry discuss the difference between USC’s victory over UCLA on Saturday and its defeat by Oregon last week. 

A lot of it, though, was not facing a guy who plays quarterback like a jazz musician.

Rosen is a special player, fundamentally sound and well-schooled at the position. He too, is elusive, but in a different way.

Rosen has the footwork and pocket-break technique of a quarterback programmed to play the position.

Compared to Adams, though, he’s a statue.

“We know he’s going to sit more in the pocket,” Trojan linebacker Su’a Cravens said of Rosen. “Vernon is a different player. He’s a running back who can throw. He’s a completely different player.”

USC caught Adams, a fifth-year graduate transfer, at the peak of his game. Since returning from a broken index finger, he has led Oregon to six straight victories.

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He is what they call, in the business, a “game-plan wrecker.”

It was hard to know which USC unit was to blame for last week’s implosion against Oregon.

Was it the defensive line that got to Adams but couldn’t tackle him, or the secondary that couldn’t defend the receivers long enough?

That argument seemed to be playing out on the field, and in the coaches’ booth, last week at Autzen Stadium.

“It’s a lot different playing a quarterback like Vernon than a quarterback like Josh Rosen,” Trojan defensive end Rasheem Green said.

Green was part of the Trojan defense team that kept meeting Rosen in the pocket. He was there to pick up a fumble forced by Pelon and return it 31 yards for a touchdown.

“He is more of a pocket passer,” Green said of Rosen, “which is a lot better than playing someone like Vernon, in my opinion.”

At least it is in college.

The problem last week at Oregon was USC defenders thought they had receivers covered for the time required for a normal play.

Adams isn’t a “normal” quarterback, though, and Trojan defenders got suckered into leaving their battle stations early.

USC defenders were supposed to play a technique called “plaster,” a term for sticking to their men like glue.

They did a much better job plastering UCLA, in part because the line was making Rosen get rid of the ball.

It allowed the Trojans to play more man-to-man coverage. It made everyone look smarter.

“We stuck to the game plan,” cornerback Kevon Seymour said. “Especially in the secondary. We were disciplined. We had a tough week last weekend.”

This isn’t a condemnation of UCLA or Rosen.

A week after Adams, though, chasing down Rosen was almost a relief.

It made it easier for USC defenders to practice the standard dictates of playing textbook defense.

“Stay with your man until the whistle blows,” Seymour said.

Adams is a senior who may never play a down at quarterback in the NFL.

Rosen is a next-level player who is only going to get better.

“He’s definitely more conventional,” Seymour said of UCLA’s talented freshman. “But it’s easier to play a pocket passer.”

That might not always be the case in the future, with Rosen, or UCLA.

But it was the case Saturday.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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