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USC Sports

Has USC’s depth improved from when it was under sanctions? Clancy Pendergast doesn’t think so

Clancy Pendergast
USC defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast talks over the headset during a scrimmage period at the Coliseum on Aug. 15.
(Shotgun Spratling / Los Angeles Times)

The last time Clancy Pendergast coached USC’s defense, the Trojans had only 70 players on scholarship, 15 fewer than is usually allowed. NCAA sanctions had wiped out the team’s depth, which tightened rotations on both sides of the ball and made for heavy legs late in games.

After that season, Pendergast went elsewhere before returning to USC this season. Have things changed?

Not really, Pendergast said this week.

“I don’t see where the depth is any different defensively than when I was here last time,” Pendergast said.

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USC’s defense has sunk to 71st in the nation in yards allowed per game, at 395. It is 99th in sacks, with five in four games — and none against Utah. And the Utes brutalized USC late in the game, when they scored 21 points in the final 20 minutes.

The late collapse, players said, was facilitated by USC’s thin rotation.

The team, cornerback Adoree’ Jackson said flatly, “got fatigued.”

The lack of depth has been especially acute on the defensive line, where the absence of Noah Jefferson has left few reserves. Safety Chris Hawkins empathized with their heavy burden.

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“They aren’t built to last like an 800-meter runner,” Hawkins said.

Utah ran an unusually high number of plays — 81 in total, bolstered by the Trojans’ three quick turnovers in the first half.

Arizona State, USC’s next opponent, has built an offense around tempo. Its average plays per game isn’t far off, at 80.5.

To prepare, USC has planned on using more substitutes.

Coach Clay Helton said he and Pendergast agreed they would have to roll in more players throughout the game. The goal, he said, is to steal about six plays per half for the regulars to rest.

“We’re gonna have to count on them to do their job,” Helton said.

Helton disagreed with Pendergast’s overall assessment. He said USC’s linebackers include young, promising reserves, and its secondary is two-deep at all positions.

But the defensive line, he said, is the issue.

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“Right now, you can feel it,” Helton said. “I agree with him.”

It has created a nasty feedback cycle. The defensive line doesn’t have the depth to cycle in fresh legs. That means USC’s pass rush has been ineffective. And that has kept the defense on the field for even more plays. Sacks are usually a useful way to cut drives short.

So, linebacker Cameron Smith said, USC plans to blitz more Saturday, something it has done only sparingly this season.

Arizona State has also displayed an ability to close out games with fury. Last week, it scored 31 points in the fourth quarter against California.

Hawkins, who hadn’t noted the quarter changes during film study of the Sun Devils this week, learned of the total only after Wednesday’s practice, when an observer mentioned it to him.

“They scored 31 in the fourth?” he said. “That’s impressive.”

Earlier in the season, the Sun Devils scored 17 points in the fourth quarter to outshoot Texas Tech, 68-55. The 68 points were seven more than USC scored through its first three games this season.

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“We can’t expect our offense to score 60 points like a Texas Tech,” Hawkins said. “That’s not the kind of team we are. We don’t really want to play that type of game.”

Banner uncertain

Right tackle Zach Banner participated in USC’s practice early. By the end, he hobbled off, his left ankle still gimpy.

Banner had sprained his ankle on the final play against Utah on Friday. Earlier this week, Helton said he didn’t expect Banner to miss much practice time. But the injury has festered.

Helton now says Banner will be a game-time decision to play against Arizona State.

If Banner cannot go, USC will use a rotation of Jordan Simmons and Chuma Edoga. Helton said Simmons will probably start the game, which would be the first start of his career. But he and Edoga would rotate series, until one asserted himself.

Edoga started at left tackle in USC’s first two games while Chad Wheeler rested a foot injury.

Quick hits

Reserve cornerback Jack Jones’ sprained ankle has improved ahead of schedule, and Helton expects him to be available against Arizona State. … Running back Dominic Davis (thigh contusion) will not play.

zach.helfand@latimes.com

Twitter: @zhelfand


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