LOS ANGELES (AP) — The calendar seems lined up in favor of Southern California's pass defense.
After the Trojans finally got their first interception of the season, they had an open date on the schedule to prepare for Colorado wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. on Saturday. He leads college football with 141.6 yards receiving per game.
"I think we're moving forward as a unit," cornerback Isaiah Langley said Wednesday night. "I'm pretty excited for the second half of the season."
For the secondary of the Trojans (3-2, 2-1 Pac-12), it begins with their toughest challenge in Shenault, who has at least 10 receptions and 126 yards receiving in all four games against FBS opposition this season. The sophomore is the only player in the Pac-12 averaging more than 100 yards receiving and one of 10 nationally, which defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast credits to how the Buffaloes (5-0, 2-0) use Shenault.
Shenault can line up at any receiver position in Colorado's spread offense or even as a tight end, leading Pendergast to compare him to longtime NFL standout Anquan Boldin. He can receive direct snaps out of the backfield, which led USC coach Clay Helton to change up his installation schedule in practice this week to get extra reps.
"They're using him in Wildcat in short yardage and goal line, and everybody in the park knows he's running it and they're being very successful with it," Helton said. "Great ball skills. Very unique talent."
The versatility of Shenault, who has six touchdown receptions and four touchdown runs, makes flexibility an equally important trait for the USC defense this week.
"We got to be able to adjust," Pendergast said. "They seem to have a different game plan with him every single week."
Langley was confident USC's defensive backs would be up to the task, showing the confidence that's come from their recent schedule. Safety Marvell Tell III picked off a pass in USC's 24-20 win at Arizona, one of four takeaways for the defense this season and the only interception among 34 passes defended, which Langley described as "exciting and kind of disturbing."
Creating more turnovers was a main point of emphasis during the open week, and Langley said a change in attitude was evident as soon as Tell came down with the ball.
"When one has been thrown, there's going to be some more thrown," Langley said.
Freshman safety Talanoa Hufanga and cornerback Olaijah Griffin have showed strides, while senior cornerback Iman Marshall looked ready to deal with Shenault after a physically dominant performance.
The secondary is dealing with a spate of injuries throughout the front seven. Defensive lineman Jay Tufele was a passenger in a car accident last week and is not expected to play. Defensive lineman Brandon Pili lost a toenail and had X-rays on his foot Wednesday after being stepped on by a teammate. Linebacker Cameron Smith left practice early because of a tight hamstring, but Helton was optimistic it would not limit his availability.
There was some good news with outside linebacker Porter Gustin expected to play despite an ankle injury.
"If there was ever a time for an off week, it was last week," Helton said. "I don't think he would have been able to play last Saturday. He looks it now."
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