Defense wins championships.We all know that saying. I think it’s probably been plastered onto so many high school football shirts and motivational posters that anyone who’s ever watched or played or even been around sports knows it. Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.No matter what sport, I’ve always loved defense, perhaps even more than offense. When I played basketball and soccer, there was something satisfying about squaring up an opponent and shutting down any move they tried to make past you. When I watch football and basketball, I live for the hard hits and the showboat blocks.That might be because of where I’m from. Kansas City is known across the board for teams that specialize in defense — Sporting KC with its indomitable home field atmosphere, the Chiefs with their smash mouth defensive line and Alex Gordon and the Royals and their high-flying antics in the outfield. It’s something the teams and the city takes pride in. And when defense is great, it’s a thing of beauty to watch.Last Saturday, I don’t think I could use the word “beautiful” to describe most of the USC defense. There were, of course, the highlights of the fourth quarter — that Porter Gustin sack, the Marvel Tell interception — but the game left a bitter taste in the mouths of most fans despite the 49-31 final score.Entering this season, there has been perhaps too much hype surrounding this USC football team. Yet most of it focused on phenom quarterback Sam Darnold, his offense and his inevitable quest to collect a Pac-12 championship, a national championship and a Heisman trophy in one fell swoop. There was a slight rumble in the Coliseum when Darnold took the field for the first time on Saturday, a thrum of expectation that paid off in the opening touchdown drive and then quickly dissipated throughout the frustrating first half. And despite receiving very little of the offseason spotlight, the same expectation still stood for the defense as it took the field.What unfolded over the first three quarters of the Western Michigan game was, in a word, disappointing. The defensive line found no room to pressure the quarterback, while the secondary blew coverage and the linebackers let running backs slip away with sloppy arm tackles. The offense struggled to get off the ground, but they also had no safety net. The defense allowed 263 yards on the ground alone, falling to 113th out of 125 teams in the FBS after the poor outing. The hits weren’t hard and the stops weren’t impressive. For the first time, I felt that the best way to describe the USC defense was “soft.”There are a lot of excuses that could be made for the defense. Western Michigan was bringing a new head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterback to the Coliseum, and there was little to no film available to prepare the defense. Junior linebacker Cam Smith, who typically leadsin-game adjustments for the Trojans, was confined to the locker room for the first half due to a suspension carried over from the Rose Bowl, leaving the young defense to adjust themselves without one of their captains. For all those reasons, it makes sense that team came out to a slow start. But there’s a difference between a slow start and allowing almost 300 yards rushing. Sloppy tackles and lack of energy couldn’t be blamed on a lack of film or a sidelined leader or even the heat. Smith was harsh in his review of the team, saying it had nothing to do with anything except lack of concentration.“Bad,” he said impatiently to the reporter scrum after the game. “It was really bad.”Something has to change. The Trojans squeaked out of their season opener with a victory, but the same performance can’t be repeated next Saturday against Stanford. The Cardinal will bring everything that Western Michigan did — scrappy defense, a hard-nosed run game and balanced aerial attack — with the added benefit of Pac-12 talent. It’s too early to panic, and first games are historically poor barometers for the future success of football teams. (Just ask any fan who stuck through from the Alabama game to the Rose Bowl last year, if you don’t believe me.) But while many might be ready to sound the alarm while poring over Darnold’s Heisman chances, I’m much more concerned with the defense.Defense wins championships. It’s cliché. It’s also true. And as USC continues to grind through a tough Pac-12 and non-conference schedule — all without a bye week — it will be the defense, and not the offense, that will be tested the most.If the Trojans are going to live up to the hype this year, fans will have to hope that a different defense shows up to the Coliseum this Saturday.Julia Poe is a junior studying print and digital journalism. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, Poe’s Perspective, runs Wednesdays.
CHASING THE WIND—Carolina Panthers spent the evening chasing LeVeon Bell, who picked up 147 yards o the ground. (AP photo)The man who brought as much value to the position as anyone in football history, Smith is the career rushing leader with 18,355 yards. DeMarco Murray, the guy currently toting the ball for the team Smith helped win three Super Bowls, the Dallas Cowboys, isn’t faring too poorly this season. Murray has rushed for at least 100 yards in all eight games, an NFL mark, and is on pace to gain 2,000 yards on the ground.Further proof, Smith says, that the running back is an important cog, even in today’s pass-happy NFL.“That the league has drifted to becoming a quarterback-focused league, the demands for a running back have been neutralized a bit,” Smith says. “Everyone wants to get that quarterback.“But there are not that many Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Mannings or Tom Bradys or Philip Rivers. It’s been proven through time that to have success in the NFL, you have to have that balance.“Look at the teams who have won Super Bowls recently. Seattle last year could run the ball. Pittsburgh, Baltimore. Even San Francisco when you go back, could run the ball. And we could run it. You have to have that running game to win championships.”Smith believes Murray can crack the 2,000-yard barrier, but only if he and everyone around him can stay healthy. That’s already in question with quarterback Tony Romo nursing a back problem.Smith plans to attend the Super Bowl and has hopes the Cowboys will get there for the first time since he helped them win the 1995 NFL title. First, he’ll be attending the college football championship at the Cowboys’ home stadium, which he calls “Jerry’s World.”As part of a contest sponsored by Keurig (www.Tailgate.Keurig.com), fans can win a trip to the game to spend time with Smith – and not just brewing coffee.“It’s a chance for me to engage with the fans up close and personal,” Smith says. “We can talk football and anything else they want to talk about.”___LYSTEDT LAW: The Brain Injury Alliance of Washington will celebrate this weekend the passage of youth sports concussion laws in all 50 states.The NFL and USA Football, the governing body for the sport, have played roles in helping get the Lystedt Law passed throughout the nation. Commissioner Roger Goodell will accept the organization’s 2014 Leadership Award on behalf of the NFL at a gala in Seattle.Such laws were inspired by Zack Lystedt. In 2006, Lystedt suffered a brain injury following his return to a middle school football game after sustaining a concussion. Zackery, his family and a broad range of medical, business and community partners lobbied the Washington state legislature for a law to better protect young athletes in all sports.In 2010, Goodell sent letters to the governors of 44 states that did not have concussion laws urging them to pass something similar to the Lystedt Law. The NFL advocated for the laws until every state had one.That has happened.“The passage of the Lystedt Law in all 50 states is an important step for all young athletes and their parents,” says Goodell, whose teenage twin daughters have played soccer and lacrosse. “The Lystedts and the Brain Injury Alliance of Washington should rightfully be proud of all that they did to make the nationwide passage a reality. We are honored to support their work to protect all young players, no matter what sport they play.“We will continue to focus on making our game better and safer and setting the right example on health and safety in sports.”VACATION OR SUIT UP?: The New York Giants cost cornerback Mike Harris a vacation.A member of the Lions practice squad, Harris was on his way to the airport for a flight home during Detroit’s bye week when he got a call that the Giants had signed him on Tuesday.Vacation over.Harris changed his plans and planes, went to New Jersey and practiced with the team on Thursday for its game against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night.Harris, who spent the 2012-13 seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and made seven starts in 31 games, is ready to play.“You have to be ready,” Harris said. “You never know when your number is going to be called.”In Harris’ case, you also never know where you are going to be when your phone number is called, and what it might cost you.“I would rather lose the bye week rather than spend another week on the practice squad,” he said.JERSEY REPORT: As the league approaches the halfway point for all 32 teams, who has the hottest-selling jerseys?Who else but the quarterbacks?Denver’s Peyton Manning, Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck and Seattle’s Russell Wilson rank at the top according to sales at Dick’s Sporting Goods stores. Four other QBs make the Top 10: Baltimore’s Joe Flacco is sixth, Carolina’s Cam Newton is eighth, New England’s Tom Brady is ninth and – even though he is a backup who rarely gets on the field – Cleveland rookie Johnny Manziel is 10th.Only one defensive player is in the Top 10, Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly at No. 5.Fifth is Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, and seventh is Bears receiver Brandon Marshall.The defending champion Seahawks top the team sales chart, followed by Denver, Carolina, Chicago and Baltimore.___AP Pro Football Writer Barry Wilner and Sports Writer Tom Canavan contributed to this story.___AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL