No. 7 USC is No. 1 nationally in sacks as it invades ‘Sack Lake City’ to face No. 20 Utah
While the offense is averaging 40.2 points per game, the defense is yielding only 18.7 points per contest
Since Lincoln Riley left Oklahoma to become the head coach at USC, much of the attention has been on the Trojans’ new-look offense.
In true L.A. style, it boasts glitz and glamour.
“We have got to continue to accelerate and push and get better. The guys need to keep responding. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance every time we step on the field.” — USC coach Lincoln Riley
Riley is regarded as an offensive guru and a quarterback whisperer. He played a role in developing quarterbacks like Kyler Murray, Baker Mayfield and Jalen Hurts when he was coaching the Sooners. Mayfield and Murray won the Heisman Trophy and all three are currently playing in the NFL.
Now, he’s mentoring another top QB in Caleb Williams, who followed Riley from Norman to Los Angeles.
But as No. 7 USC invades Rice-Eccles Stadium Saturday (6 p.m. MDT, Fox) to take on No. 20 Utah, don’t forget about the Trojans defense.
While the offense is averaging 40.2 points per game, the defense is yielding only 18.7 points per contest. The Trojans lead the nation in turnover margin at plus-14. They’ve recovered three fumbles and had 12 interceptions.
This Riley-led team is successful in part because of its ability to make life miserable for opposing quarterbacks.
That’s right, USC comes to “Sack Lake City” leading the nation in sacks with 24 — an average of six per game.
Defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu leads the country in sacks with seven, averaging 1.17 per game. He’s also tied for No. 1 in the nation in tackles for loss with 2.1 per game.
Tuipulotu recorded three sacks in last week’s 30-14 victory over Washington State and he was named the Pac-12 defensive lineman of the week.
The 6-foot-4, 290-pounder’s three sacks fell only one short of tying the school record of four sacks, which has been accomplished four times — Marcus Cotton against Oregon State in 1987; Junior Seau against Oregon State in 1989; Tim Ryan against UCLA in 1989; and Lawrence Jackson against Arizona State in 2007.
Meanwhile, defensive lineman Nick Figueroa added a pair of sacks last week against WSU.
How does Riley explain his defense’s ability to get to quarterbacks?
“It’s good team defense. The front has bought into the notion that if we’re not in the backfield, we’re not playing the way we want to play. We’ve been able to get production from multiple people,” he said. “Tuli’s been a force for us but it hasn’t just been Tuli. We’ve covered well in the back end — that’s part of it, too … Everybody’s got to be doing their job. Our pass rush has certainly gotten better as of late.”
Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who knows something about defense, is impressed with USC’s.
“Really good front four. They’re leading the nation in sacks. They get after the quarterback,” he said. “The secondary is always athletic. Between the secondary and the way their front is playing, that’s the reason why they’re having success.”
Riley knows all about Rising. When he was at Oklahoma, Riley recruited Rising, who originally signed with Texas, where he redshirted in 2018 before transferring to Utah.
“He’s a cool kid. It was good to be able to reconnect with him at the Pac-12 media day. He’s a neat kid. He’s got a great family. He bounced around a little bit but he’s obviously found a tremendous home,” Riley said about Rising this week. “It seems like he’s been a great fit there for the team and what they’ve done offensively. He’s run it very well.
“You can see it this year, his evolution. He’s more experienced. They’re doing more things through him, which is no surprise … I thought he was a really good player (when recruiting him) and he’s been a very good player. Obviously we’re not on the same side this week. But I’m excited for his career, how it’s gone and how it will go after this.”
While the Trojans will try to go after Rising, Utah’s offensive line needs to be up to the challenge.
“We had some breakdowns on Saturday that led to a couple of sacks. But overall, I would say the offensive line is playing efficiently. A B+, if you want to put a grade on it, I guess,” Whittingham said about his O-line. “We’re not giving up excessive sacks. We’re running the ball effectively. We’re doing some good things on the offensive line. Is there room for improvement? Yes, just like at every other position. But they’ve been pretty productive so far.”
USC, overall, has been pretty productive, too. The Trojans finished 4-8 last season and then turned to Riley to turn things around. So far, they’re living up to the high expectations.
Halfway through the season, Riley has guided USC to a 6-0 record and a top-10 ranking.
But Riley knows there’s a lot of work left to do — including Saturday’s game at Utah.
“There will be several 6-0 teams that will finish really well, some that finish OK and some that don’t finish very good. But it’s just a start,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee to anything. It will be a challenging second half of the season. But this is when it gets the most fun. This is what you do it for. You put yourself in a great position. Now it’s time to go accelerate and do your best.”
Riley knows his team has not yet reached its potential.
“We’ve got to get better. The target moves. It’s what good enough Week 1 is not good enough Week 7,” Riley said. “The reality for us is, we’re excited about the winning and the things that we’ve done but we still come back each week and know there’s much more in the tank with these guys. … We can’t get too happy or satisfied.
“We have got to continue to accelerate and push and get better. The guys need to keep responding. If we do that, we’ll give ourselves a chance every time we step on the field.”
After last week’s victory over Washington State, Riley acknowledged that restoring USC’s storied program has not been easy.
“It’s been a tough grind to start to build this,” Riley said, “but we’re having a hell of a lot of fun.”
The Trojans are hoping to put points on the board, put pressure on Rising, maintain their perfect record — and have some more fun Saturday night at Utah.
Utes on the air
No. 7 USC (6-0, 4-0)
at No. 20 Utah (4-2, 2-1)
Saturday, 6 p.m. MDT
Radio: ESPN 700