The way Cal played against Ohio State got me excited and my excitement level stayed high as I watched the USC-Stanfurd game because I think we have a shot to win this week. Couple that with the great comments my posts have generated and the result was that I watched way too much USC football. I saw so much to talk about that I will need to break it into two posts this week (and still have to leave stuff out).
This first post I will look at some things I spotted in USC's first two games. The following post will focus on last week's USC-'Furd game. In USC's early games they were definitely hiding parts of their playbook but they did show some tendencies including some things that allowed Stanfurd to beat them.
Lets look at their passing game against Hawaii. USC has the second and third best receivers in the Pac-12 and possibly in the nation in Marqise Lee (#9) and Robert Woods (#2). The game plan against Hawaii was to throw to these guys often and let them run. This was so effective that USC hardly even bothered to run the ball in the first half.
Defensively, Hawaii was in the same coverage for most of the game: Man Free. You can see in the photo below that this means that Hawaii has five men lined up at the line of scrimmage, five guys lines up in man to man coverage and a Free Safety (who because Matt Barkeley runs as often as a penguin is "free" to help any of the other DBs in coverage). USC has Lee and Woods split out wide, two backs in the backfield and a Tight End lined up tight (next to the Tackle). You can just see the Free Safety on the edge of the screen.
Hawaii is showing a heavy pass rush. USC runs a little motion with Lee just to confirm that the coverage is Man-to-Man; in Man coverage the defender will follow his man all over the field, even pre-snap, so the offense used pre-snap motion as a "tell". Hawaii plays Woods tight at the line of scrimmage with the Free Safety (off screen) deep to provide help in case Woods beats the tight coverage, that is a lot of respect for the guy considered USC's top receiver entering the season. On the other side of the field, Lee is given a five yard cushion by the cornerback since he has no help if he is beat deep.
USC is running two shallow out routes at the top of the screen, while Woods runs a slant and one running back stays to block while the other runs to the flat.
When USC's quarterback, Matt Barkley, sees Man coverage, at least five pass rushers and double coverage on Woods he immediately looks to Lee's route in front of the cornerback.
On the first play of the season, Marqise Lee makes a statement: Robert Woods isn't the #1 receiver on this team anymore. Lee turns the short completion into a touchdown and makes every week 1 highlight reel.
Getting the ball to Lee in space against Man coverage was a theme of the game. This next play starts out with USC in a bunch formation at the top of the screen and Woods split out wide to the bottom of the screen. The Hawaii players circled in green are pointing out to each other who they are covering to make sure all three players in the bunch are covered. The Free Safety is once again lined up on the same side of the field as Robert Woods.
USC sends Lee in motion towards the top of the screen and his cover man follows him. They are a long way from the Free Safety and everyone else has a man to account for.
One man in the remaining bunch releases for a pass pattern while the other stays to block. Lee takes a step back and Barkley hits him immediately while the Cornerback has backpedaled away.
In space Lee is able to make the Corner miss and runs for another big gain.
So far we have learned that USC will look for the one on one coverage and if the defender is leaving a cushion at the line of scrimmage USC will throw under the coverage and allow their receiver to make a play to turn a short gain into a long one. What happens when the coverage is tight?
Once again Hawaii is lined up in Man Free, USC has a tight end and two receivers lined up close to the formation at the bottom of the screen and Woods all alone at the top of the screen. They only have four down linemen but this is just a cover for their blitz. Hawaii's gameplan is obviously to bring pressure on every play. USC recognizes the blitz and has a pass protection called to account for the five rushers. Hawaii has finally received the memo about Marquise Lee and has the Free Safety in the middle of the field instead of helping to cover Woods.
USC has not forgotten about Woods and now that he has a one-on-one match up, they plan to use him to exploit it. At the snap Barkley has eyes for no one else, in fact he hasn't been "looking off" the defense at all and the cornerback recognizes this... Too bad it was the cornerback on the other side of the field.
With the close coverage, USC will run the route deep counting on Woods to be able to beat the Corner.
Barkley throws a perfect pass to Woods for the touchdown.
So line up with tight Man-to-Man coverage of the receiver and USC will throw deep to beat you but line up in Man with a cushion and USC will throw short and let their play makers beat you with the ball in their hands.
I did start to wonder why USC was throwing so many short routes while leaving a Tight End or Running Back help in to block. Syracuse gave us a hint why:
At the snap USC has 2 running backs in the back field, a tight end lined up tight and two wide receivers split wide. Syracuse is showing blitz on 3rd and 11 but is disguising their coverage well as up to EIGHT defenders are threatening to pass rush.
Just after the snap we can get a better idea of what is going on. Syracuse is rushing six while dropping five guys into coverage. The USC Tight End stays in to block as does the Running Back at the top of the screen while the Left Tackle blocks the third rusher at the top of the screen. The left Guard has no one to block and evidently was responsible for one of the guys who dropped into coverage. On the bottom of the screen the right Tackle and Guard are matched up on rushers and the Running Back on this side brushes the blitzing linebacker to help slow him down for the Tackle. This linebacker actually is responsible for the Running Back in coverage and when he sees the back is not blocking, he drops into coverage. The key match up will be the Center and Nose Tackle...
All will be clearer with moving pictures... The Syracuse rushers come with a "Bull Rush" which is a technique where the defensive lineman tries to get his hands on the chest part of the offensive lineman's pads and pushes the O-lineman up onto his tip toes and backward. You can see that the Center (#78 Khaled Holmes) gets pushed straight back into Matt Barkley, who even if he could figure out where to throw the ball, was unable to step up and throw. The result is a sack, one of three on the day.
Here it is from the Quarterback's point of view:
USC must have been worried about its offensive line and Stanfurd must have seen this in the Syracuse game tape because they would take full advantage (as I hope to show in Part 2). Syracuse was not able to tee off on Matt Barkley because USC mounted an effective running attack in this game. Here is just one example:
USC has the Tight End tight to the right side of the line, one Back in the back field (#22 Curtis McNeal) and three Receivers split out. Syracuse has a 4 down lineman, 3 Linebackers (one over the tight end and 2 in the middle), 3 Defensive Backs over the receivers and a Safety somewhere off the screen.
Syracuse is respecting USC's passing offense and has seven defenders in the box with a deep safety. USC will have the Center and both Tackles block linemen leaving the defensive end toward the top of the screen unblocked. This is not an option much less a read option, but that defensive end won't matter because the play will develop quickly and run away from him. The Guards will both block the middle linebackers and the Tight End will block the backside pursuit. With the play side receiver blocking the cornerback and no safety within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage, this play will result in a 20 yard gain.
The GIF shows the action much better than I could ever describe. Want to learn how a running back reads blocks? Watch McNeal follow his blockers butts: a running back is taught to cut the direction his blockers' butts are pointing and you can clearly see this below.
The last play we will look at in this post is a passing play in the red zone. USC is in a formation similar to the run we just looked at and Syracuse is in almost the same defensive alignment except that the defensive backs are a couple yards deeper, to "keep the play in front of them" and prevent a touchdown, and the Safety isn't as deep as in the previous play. #2 Robert Woods is at the bottom of the screen and #9 Marqise Lee is in the slot towards the top of the screen. The outside linebacker is showing blitz.
Just after the snap we can see that the outside backer has indeed blitzed. The running back moves up to pass block (the defensive end) but there is no one to block the linebacker. The ball has to be thrown quickly and Barkley is going to throw to where the linebacker blitzed from (something I talked about in an earlier post). When the coverage is soft (meaning that DBs are giving the receivers a cushion) we have seen that USC will run routes underneath the coverage (meaning they will try to complete a pass in cushion the defense provides), this time is no different.
Once again Lee shows his ability to run after the catch. Notice that Barkley, once again, looks at the receiver he intends to throw to the entire time. This is a "Tell" the defense can use to determine where and when a pass will be thrown and try to intercept it.
So what have we seen in these plays? USC relies on Matt Barkley to read a coverage, find the one-on-one match up and then throw a under a soft coverage or deep on a tight coverage. SC relies on Lee and Woods to get yards after the catch and Marqise Lee is the favored receiver early in the season. The Trojans do have a run game that can be effective if their passing attack is working. Barkley may not be looking off the coverage which could allow for some interceptions. And, they have problems on pass protection, which we will see more of in Part 2.
I know this was a long post, thank you for reading this far. If you want even more, in Part 2 I plan to focus on the SC-Furd game and show a wrinkle that wasn't used in USC's first two games and I plan to show how Stanfurd beat USC including GIFs of all 5 sacks of Barkley. All of that is ambitious which is why I say "plan".