Thanks to Alicia de Artola of Reign of Troy for her insights into the team on this week’s podcast interview. Be sure and check it out for a deeper discussion of USC’s depleted, but still talented roster, the curse of Clay Helton, and the chaos that is the PAC-12.
It’s been suggested that because the Trojans’ OC Harrell played quarterback for and coached under the Cougars’ Coach Leach, USC’s new offensive system resembles Wazzu’s air raid. I’m very skeptical of that argument and can only see the most superficial of similarities.
Instead what I’m seeing is, at this point, a fairly standard college spread offense with the minor variation that it drops back to pass about 55% of the time out of 4- or 5-wide. There is little if any of the coherent philosophy or organizing principles -- the attempts to stress the defense and present unwinnable choices -- that underlie the offense Oregon faced last week.
Which is not to say that it’s not a potent, highly dangerous offense - it certainly is. In fact, the most surprising observation from my five games’ worth of film study on the Trojans is that their rushing attack is one of the most efficient in the conference, and not because of any real surprise factor or manipulating the defense the way the Cougs do, but simply because their powerful, talented backs were generating a huge amount of yards after contact. I tallied about a third of all their rushing plays succeeded because they did not go down after first contact, which is about double the average rate for a Power-5 running back room.
However, that was before their top three tailbacks went down to injury - #7 RB Carr, #29 RB Malepeai, and #30 RB Stepp. I have very little film on the 4th and 5th stringers, #23 RB Christon #27 RB Jountti, or #8 WR St. Brown’s time lining up in the backfield. So far they’ve preferred a lot more outside running with these three, relying on speed instead of bruising. Here’s a representative sample of what little we’ve seen:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos to play them at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - St. Brown motions from the slot to the backfield for what’s a typical outside zone run, but the defense doesn’t have the box count quite right because it was originally an empty set, and St. Brown is able to make a nice cutback into a lighter lane.
- :10 - Christon shows off his impressive speed, and benefits from some nice perimeter blocking.
- :17 - Here’s the problem: the defense had figured out that the new guys are almost always running outside, so the front is able to guess where to cut in pretty easily. Here the outside linebacker immediately shoots in and past the WR’s block, and the defensive tackle knows just what angle to take to beat the center to the play.
Another big surprise is that, contrary to the reputation of the air raid generally and these incredibly talented wide receivers specifically, this offense mostly keeps its passing routes pretty short, and attempts to move down the field methodically. However, they have mixed success at best with this strategy: I tallied 74 successful passing plays vs 68 failed ones, given the down and distance, about a 52% per-play efficiency - pretty middling for a Power-5 offense. Some examples:
- :00 - Here a fairly unremarkable crossing route is completed then tackled quickly for a minimal gain. But the reverse high angle is wonderful for displaying a typical set of route concepts in this offense. Note how even in 5-wide and on 1st & 10, nothing goes farther than 5 yards downfield.
- :13 - Another bread and butter play for this offense, a quick throw into the flat and then hoping for (and frequently getting) significant yards after catch by #6 WR Pittman. #9 QB Slovis shows more poise in the pocket under pressure than one usually sees from a true freshman pressed into the game.
- :27 - #15 WR London has emerged as a quasi-TE in the past few weeks, lining up in the slot but fairly close to the tackle, with the size to catch easy dumpoffs and mesh concepts … tough to bring down, too.
Counterbalancing this, and what makes this offense so lethal, is that their trio of top-flight wideouts -- St. Brown, Pittman, and #21 WR Vaughns -- have the ability to score on any play. The offense is absolutely reliant on explosive passing plays: about 10% of their dropbacks resulted in a 20+ yard gain, and those 15 plays constituted almost a third of their total net gains. Some terrifying examples:
- :00 - Max protect -- both the TE and RB stay in to block -- against only a 3-man pass rush seems like there shouldn’t be any pressure but the 8 guys in coverage should be able to lock down deep routes. But neither hold true, and instead St. Brown pulls in a miraculous catch.
- :21 - This is a pretty risky throw given the DB’s position and that it’s not really high enough to make it so that only Vaughns can catch it. But he uses his enormous size to simply pluck the ball away, then has the body control to arrest his momentum and stomp into the end zone.
- :44 - No subtlety here, just pure speed - Pittman out-accelerates the trailing CB and is too fast for the safety to get over in time.
One area where I think USC’s passing system is quite vulnerable -- in a way that Wazzu’s was not -- is bringing an extra or delayed rusher to confuse this fairly porous offensive line and panic the young QB. I tallied 21% of all dropbacks resulting in a sack, scramble, or throwaway, and blitzes are particularly effective at generating them. Some examples:
- :00 - It may not be possible to lock down all of USC’s receivers in man coverage for long, but you don’t necessarily have to with quick pressure from odd angles, as with this twist and getting around the tackles. The QB evacuates the pocket then makes an extremely risky throw across his body over the middle and is lucky not to get picked off.
- :15 - It’s bad enough that #62 C Neilon gets immediately bullrushed into the QB’s lap, but there’s ineffective blitz communication and Slovis doesn’t know what to do when there’s an unblocked man (hint: it’s to hit the tailback on the hot route or Pittman in the zone the blitzer has vacated).
- :29 - The defense initially rushes only three, so #70 RG McKenzie helps the center with the DT, but he fails to keep his eyes up for the delayed blitz from the backer. The hit produces a pass that not even Pittman can go up and get.
- :46 - Slovis senses the DE that #53 RT Richmond has let through, but somehow doesn’t see the corner blitz coming even though this isn’t his blindside.
For my summer preview of USC, we talked with Alicia about the challenges of a talented but extremely young secondary. So it’s something of a surprise that at this point of the season, I think the DBs constitute the strength of the defense. I grade out this pass defense at 81 success vs 65 failures, a pretty decent 55% per-play success rate, and in my opinion that’s mostly from a pretty effective set of defensive backs:
- :00 - Getting your hips flipped like this is usually a big no-no for a corner, and to make it worse the tight end here has about eight inches of height on #2 CB Griffin, but he makes it look like no problem at all with this leaping break-up.
- :22 - Impressively tight coverage the whole way by #21 S Pola-Mao, and he survives the unflagged push-off with a rake of the receiver’s hands to earn this PBU.
- :46 - Great job maintaining leverage all the way down the sideline by #6 CB Taylor-Stuart here.
However, probably the most significant of the long list of defensive injuries USC is dealing with is their best DB, #15 S Hufanga, a big hybrid safety who frequently played down in the box. They’ve replaced him with #7 S C. Williams, but he’s slimmer and isn’t playing in the same way. I think their inability to use him as extra power in the box is affecting an already underperforming pass rush - I counted only about 15% of all opponent dropbacks in which meaningful QB pressure contributed to a failed offensive play.
Injuries to the linebacker corps, particularly the replacement of starter #1 ILB Gaoteote with backup #26 ILB Mauga, are also contributing to significant problems covering short-to-intermediate routes, which are by far their biggest passing game vulnerability. Some examples:
- :00 - Play-action has about half the defense fooled, including senior #10 ILB Houston and nickel #9 DB G. Johnson who can’t provide underneath coverage. A tight end of this size making it into the secondary unchallenged is a problem for the DBs to handle.
- :19 - Mauga properly hands off the zone coverage here, but he’s constantly losing both his leverage and his eyes and can’t properly defend the pass to the bigger tight end.
- :38 - Here’s an inside screen to the running back, and for some reason Mauga is drifting to the field in spite of his keys, while the DBs get blocked out pretty easily.
- :46 - The Buffs got two touchdowns on this same play, a crosser in the red zone that confounds the USC interior defense on how they’re supposed to hand off coverage assignments. Both ILBs and the safety wind up trailing a guy who had to run 40 yards across the field.
The rush defense, on the other hand, is astonishingly poor - in the Pac-12 they’re ahead of only Oregon St and Wazzu (and not by much), while they’re 30 rush yards per game behind 9th place. I tally them at only 54 successful rush defenses vs 86 failures, a 38% per-play success rate. And they’re not runs that just barely make it past the threshold either: against all designed rushes in the five games I charted, they surrendered an average of 6.4 yards per carry.
I’ve seen some of the blame for that go to the linebacker injuries as well as those to starters #89 DE Rector and #99 DE D. Jackson. But I had them tallied as a pretty ineffective rush defense squad even before those injuries, and I think a different group is the primary culprit: the defensive tackles, who as far as I can tell are at full strength and have a 6-man rotation of highly recruited players. On the podcast with Alicia, we talked about the structure of the rush defense requiring that the DTs in this (typically) 4-man front being required to clog up the A-gaps and absorb double teams while the ILBs flow to the exterior gaps, but the problem is even these very big DTs are getting blown off the line pretty consistently. Some examples:
- :00 - USC has 10 men in the box here, and readers will recall that this offense already has a starter missing from its line. But look at how thoroughly the entire defensive line is washed down so that only a couple DBs are left standing to take on the hard-charging back.
- :13 - Pretty effective hat-on-hat blocking here, including running #51 DT Tuipulotu ten yards out of the play, and the safety uses the Downward-Facing Dog asana to tackle.
- :37 - Here Tuipulotu and #91 DT Pili are handled fairly easily, and Houston just gets run over.
- :55 - Once again the DTs are washed out by the interior of the line, but Houston does a good job beating the puller to the play. He can’t make this short yardage tackle on his own though, and the other 4-star ILB seems ill at ease just watching it.
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