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Roll On: Xs and Os of the Trojans & How California Can Beat USC

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Don't forget to RSVP to the CGB tailgate!

Now that you're thoroughly pumped up, it's time to get to know the enemy on the field. To get us prepared for the technical side of the Cal-USC game, we talked with the West Coast version of Smart Football, Trojan Football Analysis. In addition we'll look at last year's 2008 game (with help from ieeebear) and see what has changed and what we might look out for on Saturday. My notes are in parentheses.

1. Could you explain the basic concepts of USC’s simple but effective offense? Have you seen any variation between the way Sarkisian and current OC John Morton have designed their game plans?

Let’s start with the running game which is somewhat simpler to explain. Since 2002 the USC rushing offense has increasingly relied upon the inside zone (IZ) and outside zone (OZ) stretch plays for 70-80% of its rush attack. Other plays include standard one and two back power plays, toss sweep, and a few lead isolation or draw type plays. The inside zone attack is a downhill in the play side A & B gaps (or offer cutback opportunities on the backside) with linemen executing blocks according to "covered" vs. "uncovered" rules. USC can run inside zone leaving the backside defensive end unblocked like a lot of option teams do. However since the USC QB is not a threat to run usually they instead utilize a fullback or H-back across on the play to secure the back side. This motion importantly also ties into the passing game as well since those same two players often leak out into the passing game thus putting the DE into a bind….Should he try and run down the IZ play from behind, pressure the QB if it is a pass, or disrupt the FB or HB leaking out into the flats?

(Author's Note: One of the biggest things we should look at is how the Cal linebackers perform in run defense. Although the D-linemen did their job in stopping the run for much of the first half last week, they will have a much tougher go against a veteran Trojan offensive line. If USC's running back platoon of McKnight, Bradford and Gable can get to the second level the linebackers have to be ready to make quick open tackles. Put the Trojans in 2nd and 3rd and short situations and it opens up the playbook for Barkley and Bates.)

USC Inside zone runs vs Cal 2008: Background music--Day 'N' Nite, Kid Cudi.

(After the jump, more on USC's running game, their pass plays, their defense, and how to attack each part of the team.)

The outside zone game is a more perimeter oriented play attacking the play side C & D gaps. The run two plays complement one another. Running the inside zone with success eventually pulls defenders a couple of feet closer to the center of the play. This in turn opens up a little more space on the perimeter plays. The outside zone concept is basically to stretch out the defensive line and linebackers horizontal to the line of scrimmage and create bigger running gaps. If the LB’s in particular over pursue on the play the back can often cut up on the play and head more north – south. Otherwise they press the zone outside the tackle / tight end area and try to make it to the perimeter for a few yards.

(Author's Note: Again see how many yards USC picks up on these carries: having the luxury of backs and an offensive line that can put up 5-9 yards on 1st and 2nd down makes it way easier for the Trojans to catch the defense off guard with the passing game via play-action. More on the passing after the jump, but it's safe to say that California cannot allow this type of offensive production through the game.)

USC Outside zone runs vs Cal 2008: Background Music--My Squad, Chief Kamachi and the Ju Ju Mob.

Stopping at least one of these plays is key to stopping the USC offense. Ohio State for example shut down the outside zone game with an unusual alignment, fast LB flow on the play and disciplined reads.

The basic USC offense philosophy in reality has not changed all that much the past few years despite the changes in coordinators. Success of course has varied depending upon the personnel and execution. So far in 2009 USC has been pretty conservative the first four games of the season with new quarterbacks in the back field. There has been a lot more use so far of 12 personnel packages and Twin / Pro Wing Single Back alignments. Chris Brown did a pretty thorough job on the USC passing game on Yahoo! Rivals a while back, and I’d suggest that readers go to that piece as a starting point on the passing game. USC employs a mix of 3 step quick game concepts (slant flat, double slants, curl flat, etc.), 5 step intermediate stuff (Smash routes, 4 Verticals, etc.), drop back play action, and then roll out plays off the IZ/OZ run action to confuse the defense. The USC vs. Cal game in 2008 shows some of the quick game concepts as well.

2) I’m not sure how much you watched of the Cal-Oregon tape, but Jeremiah Masoli played a precise quick-hitting game that negated the Cal pass rush and broke down the holes in a porous zone using bubble screens and short passes to the outside flats. It worked almost to perfection, and disastrously for Cal’s defense.

Interestingly, this passing game plan was very similar to what Mark Sanchez did last season, although USC made a note of establishing the run first and then mixing up the play calling, while Oregon primarily opened up the pass before devastating the Bears with the run. Based on the things you’ve seen from Matt Barkley and from previous seasons, what do you see the Trojans doing in order to break down Cal’s defense?

In some respects I don’t think USC coaches will be too influenced by the Oregon contest. It has to be thrown out as somewhat of an aberration. Also USC does not run Oregon’s spread option attack so it is pretty hard to emulate. USC will run its normal offense plus whatever wrinkles they want to work in for Cal. USC will balance its attack in terms of run and pass. Last season the coaches seemed really concerned about throwing deep versus Cal and its secondary which ranked #3 in the country with 24 interceptions. As a result Sanchez seemed to rarely throw deep in that game. The same might happen in this game unless Cal’s secondary is a lot more vulnerable than last season. USC will throw different passes out of different formations than Oregon but they’ll look to attack the perimeter with quick hitch throws, bubble screens, etc. when corners play off. Against normal down and distance alignments they’ll run their standard 3 step quick game plays. A big question is how much the coaches feel comfortable trying to attack deeper this week with a true freshman QB.

(Author's Note: You see a lot of these quick hitch throws and bubble screens in the video below, as well as the play-action fake bootleg which has been so successful for Trojan offenses in the past. Expect to see plenty of these on Saturday, unless Matt Barkley suddenly gains potent accuracy in the midrange/downfield game. Again, critical for the linebackers to step up and play their zones well--those holes got really deep last Saturday.)

USC Passing vs Cal 2008: Background Music--Conquistadors, Binary Star

3) With Stafon Johnson now out, how do you see USC’s run game changing? Johnson was arguably the Trojan’s best goal-line/short yardage back; does this put more responsibility on Joe McKnight or will it be delegated toward Allan Bradford?

The loss of Stafon Johnson hurts in many ways. Johnson was not the biggest or fastest of the USC running backs but as you point out he was consistent and probably the best at picking the right hole and gaining a few tough yards. The lost Johnson carries will probably translate into more playing time for Allan Bradford at tailback in short yardage situations and plays where Joe McKnight comes out of the game. CJ Gable or Marc Tyler may see a few more plays as well.

(Author's note: Stop Bradford and the Bears have a really good shot at controlling SC on offense. McKnight is a skilled runner, but he's not a grinder and can't hit the holes as well--in last year's game he was hitting the outside a lot, and they preferred to go with Gable or Johnson inside. This year it's been Johnson and Bradford on the ins. Gable is available but has not played much this season. Take away either the outside or inside zone and it forces Matt Barkley to beat you.)

4) Having watched the Trojans first four games, I’m guessing you’re more satisfied with USC’s defense than their struggling offense. Based on what you’ve seen, is the 4-3 under scheme still the same as previous seasons? And has there been a huge drop off in the production of the current players from the seven that were picked in the NFL draft?

I think there are some holes in the USC defense and injuries are also starting to become a real concern. USC in reality gave up 138 rushing yards to Washington State. The NCAA subtracts sack yardage off the run game so with the eight sacks versus Washington State USC padded its run stats by subtracting off 53 yards off that total to make it a more respectable figure. The Cal rush attack will be the second major test for the defense…USC surrendered 108 on the ground to Ohio State before sack yardage came off the total.

Pete Carroll likes to base out of a 4-3 under front however that is very dependent upon his available personnel, what formation the opponent chooses, and what plays they like to run the most. In recent years with Brian Cushing and then Clay Matthews available USC played the under front with a stand up LB at one of the DE spots. Additionally as the spread type of offense has proliferated on college football USC has played some more "over" fronts and "solid" aka double eagle fronts the past couple of seasons.

(Author's note: Cal will again be severely tested on the edges with Tepper and Schwartz needing to step up against a defense that leads the nation in sacks. Although USC has lost several of their key players on th, including DT Hebron Fangupo, DE Armond Armstead, and their sack leader DE Nick Perry and LB Malcolm Smith being questionable, Everson Griffin, Devon Kennard, Christian Tupou and Jurrell Casey (the likely starters for Saturday if Perry cannot go) are far from pushovers on that front line. Cal's O-line cannot let Kevin Riley get tossed around or the Bears offensive gameplan will crumble from the outset. It's on Ludwig and Marshall to have them properly prepared.)

Generic Defensive Fronts



Double Eagle formation on display vs ASU



5) Based on what you’ve seen from the Ohio State/UW games, what is the best way for an offense to attack the 4-3 under? Is the Trojan defense’s weakness really quick decision-making, mobile quarterbacks? Or is it something more?

As I mentioned USC has become a lot more multiple in its defensive alignment up front in recent years. Depending upon Cal’s formations, the down and distance, etc. you can expect to see USC in either the Over, the Under, or the Double Eagle front.

Double Eagle Alignment Up Front



Double Eagle up Front, 2 High Safety Look



4-3 Under Alignment Up Front



4-3 Under Cover 1 secondary look



4-3 over alignment up front



Rotation to Cover 3 post snap from Cover 2 shell.



The Cal contest will be interesting since the Bears run an excellent power game and mix in some zone concepts as well. Mobile QB’s can give any defense trouble but in reality just good execution and push by the offensive line can also give a team trouble all night. Oregon State in 2008 essentially ran one inside zone running play over and over versus USC and Jacquizz Rodgers gained 186 yards running right at USC.

(Author's note: Uhhh, Cal's O-line can't whiff on their blocks or be out of position like they were last week. They do and we lose. Handily. They play well and execute their blocks and maintain push on the front seven, then Jahvid Best will have a good opportunity to eat them up.

More importantly, if the running game stalls, the receivers need to run their routes properly, or at the very least be able to adjust and make plays on the ball against what figures to be strong Trojan coverage. A healthy run and pass balance is the best way to attack this hard-hitting, physical USC defensive front and a lethal secondary headed by Mays, in order to keep them guessing the same way USC's offense kept Cal's defense guessing last year.)

6) How concerning is USC’s poor 3rd down conversion rate, currently at 25%, 114th in the country? Are the Trojans putting themselves into too many 3rd and long passing situations, or are there execution issues you’ve seen between quarterback and receiver, or is the veteran offensive line making mental errors?

The 25% 3rd down conversion rate is a major concern and in real need of improvement. USC has to get this number up into the 40-45% range otherwise it will not sustain many drives this season. Stupid penalties, poor field position, poor QB decisions, and dropped passes, etc. are all part of the problem. Everyone shares in the blame on this one. Bad execution, a few curious play calls, and too many mental mistakes are killing USC in this department in the first four games.

(Author's note: If Cal's zone defense allows the Trojans to convert 40-45% of their 3rd downs, I'll be okay, I'm resigned to that figure this season with the weaker linebacking corps. If it goes over 50%, I will be severely distressed.)

Thanks again to TFA, who you can follow all season with his excellent analysis of the USC Trojans, plus other useful articles and analysis on the game of football.