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Golden Spotlight: USC Trojans & Lane Kiffin's West Coast Offense

Matt Barkley had a solid if unspectacular game against the Golden Bears last season. Can he replicate that performance in the Coliseum?
Matt Barkley had a solid if unspectacular game against the Golden Bears last season. Can he replicate that performance in the Coliseum?

Last season: 9-4

This season: 4-2 (wins at Hawaii, vs. Virginia, at Minnesota and Wazzu, losses to the Furd and Washington)

Previous matchups with Cal: Headlined by the USC defense grinding Cal's offense to a halt. The Bears put up 3, 3, 17, 9, and 10 (that last touchdown was in extended garbage time) points in their previous five meetings with the Trojans, and they haven't scored in the second half in the Coliseum since Pac-10 champion quarterback Aaron Rodgers was torching the greatest team to ever win a title, then lose it. Bob Gregory's units generally handled the Trojans well, giving up 23 (7 points came courtesy of Alamar), 17, 24, 23, and 35 points in those contests. In the end, it came down to the Golden Bear quarterbacks (Joe Ayoob, Nate Longshore, Kevin Riley) not being able to step up and deliver.

The average performance of the Cal quarterback vs. the USC defense? 45.3 completion rate, 2 combined touchdowns and 10 interceptions, 168.8 yards per game, 5.24 yards/attempt, 88 passer rating. Pesticide doesn't kill roses as effectively as performances like that do.

Glass half-full view: For all the ire that's been directed at Lane Kiffin for the last two weeks, there's nothing wrong with the way his Trojan offense has been humming. This team ranks in the top 30 in scoring (24th), rushing (22nd), rushing YPA (5th), passing (29th), passing efficiency (14th), 3rd down conversions (6th), red zone conversions (14th), touchdown conversions in the red zone (2nd), long scrimmage plays of 10+ yards (10th). For a team that had been complaining about offensive production during the last years of Pete Carroll, the Trojans seem to be back on the uptick, led by quarterback Matt Barkley, a veteran offensive line, senior Allan Bradford plugging it in at tailback, and Ronald Johnson and Robert Woods being the playmakers at wideouts.

Glass half-empty view: The USC defense is as horrid as the USC offense is indomitable. They've never recovered from losing nearly all their front seven from their 2008 squad, which was penetrable only by hobbits with dreads. With their entire secondary now decimated by departing seniors, the Trojan backline has been picked on by everyone from Hawaii to Wazzu, and Andrew Luck and Jake Locker could have set up target practice back there. The Trojan pass defense is currently ranked near the bottom of every significant category: passing yards given up (116th), passer rating (92nd), passing touchdowns (tied for 108th), passing yards per attempt (94th), 3rd down conversions (101st), red zone conversions (85th). USC has given up two game-winning drives in the final two minutes in consecutive games, the Cardinal needing barely 45 seconds to march 60 yards.

This post will cover the big matchup of the game, the USC offense vs. the Cal defense (never thought I'd ever say that ...) . Tomorrow we focus on the USC defense vs the Cal offense.

For those who want more of a primer on the Trojan offense, read last year's take from the ever insightful Art at Trojan Football Analysis. It hasn't changed much since 2005. It seems like it never will.

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.

For those who want videos so they can hear the USC fight song a hundred times, here's the tape from the Washington and Furd games (exclusively offense, because the defense was that bad). Videos are courtesy of Trojan Wire.

Allen Bradford, Matt Barkley, Robert Woods vs. Washington 2010 (via CaliforniasGold)

USC Offense vs. Stanford 2010 (via CaliforniasGold)

USC Passing Offense

Matt Barkley is a capable quarterback, although I'm still not quite sure if he's reached the level of acclaim that TV pundits laud on him. Oh, he's definitely good. It seems he can take advantage of out-of-position cornerbacks or defenders running with his receivers. What's most impressive is his timing. He hits receivers in stride, especially on quick-hitting plays. He can go through his progressions, survey the field, and deliver most of his throws quite well.

But he still has his flaws. He has a slow windup and throws a distinctly high fade routes. Watch some of these fades hang, then ponder how he's only thrown four picks this season. He sometimes isn't on the same page with his receivers and misses easy throws. Nevertheless, he has a solid understanding of the offense, a good ability to fit all the throws in, a pretty good pocket passer who runs the bootleg capably. A 65% completion percentage, a 162 passer rating and a 4:1 TD:INT ratio is a daydream for most college offenses. But his arm is only superbly accurate from around 10 to 15 yards, so if a defense can shut him down in that intermediate range (like Virginia's did), then they have a chance to shut down the offense.

Cal's defense will be in for a real test. Nick Foles is probably the only truly tested pocket passer the Bears have faced all year--although Cal's defense held him down, Foles range was very limited beyond 10-15 yards and didn't really test the defense vertically. Barkley can stretch the field and keep the Bears scrambling if he gets into a rhythm and his experienced offensive line picks up the blitzes up front.

It helps to have an experienced offensive line in front of him. All five of the Trojans starters have seen plenty of time and have handled their duties superbly. They've only allowed six sacks all season and have kept the USC offense moving all year.

Ideally, USC's staff wants senior center Kristofer O'Dowd to be flanked on the right by sophomore guard Khaled Holmes and junior tackle Tyron Smith. Senior guard Butch Lewis and sophomore tackle Matt Kalil would start on the left side.


O'Dowd had off-season shoulder surgery but appears to be regaining the form that made him a first-team All-Pacific 10 Conference selection two years ago.

Lewis, who plays all positions except center, is rounding into shape after sitting out most of training camp because of a groin injury.

Holmes, a backup in three games last season, remains limited while nursing a neck condition.

Kalil was slowed by minor injuries early in camp but has locked down the spot where he started last December in the Emerald Bowl.

And trust me, Cal's secondary has never seen anything this season the likes of Robert Woods. Woods is already showing he's a Desean Jackson-caliber athlete, returning kicks and racking up the all-scrimmage yards.

R Woods vs Stanford (via artoftroy) (courtesy of TFA)

Woods cannot be treated lightly as a gamebreaker, nor can his more experienced companion Ronald Johnson as a reliable option. Both will be relied on a lot. For a change of pace, we could see tight end Jordan Cameron down the middle or Stanley Havili wreaking his usual havoc.

USC Rushing Offense

Some background from the same interview with TFA last year. The Trojan run blocking is almost purely zone, with a little of everything else mixed in.

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?


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.

Allen Bradford is the current #1. He's shown promise, although he's looking to recover from his atrocious Furd performance.

"There were a few times when I could have cut back and other times when I should have stayed on track," he said Wednesday. "I've got to be a little more patient on some runs and explode on others."

USC faces a Cal defense that ranks first in the Pacific 10 Conference and eighth in the nation. The Golden Bears are giving up 106 yards rushing per game.

With freshman Dillon Baxter sidelined because of a foot injury, the Trojans will play Cal with three healthy tailbacks: Bradford, junior Marc Tyler and senior C.J. Gable.

Tyler is currently the #2 and is a good pick to be the starter next season. Interestingly, he's done a lot of his damage recently from the Wildcat formation, similar to what Isi Sofele did last week against UCLA. He nearly threw a clutch touchdown out of this formation.

Tailbacks Marc Tyler and Dillon Baxter took shotgun snaps from center Kristofer O'Dowd, with quarterback Matt Barkley splitting out wide.

The Trojans ran Wildcat plays seven times in the first half, gaining 34 yards. Tyler had 35 of those yards on six attempts, including a 6-yard touchdown run that gave USC a 21-17 lead late in the second quarter. USC didn't use it as much in the second half and eventually lost to UW, 32-31.

Baxter, who played quarterback in a similar formation in high school, lost a yard on his lone attempt in the first half. It was the only time he touched the ball.

"I guess the coaches had something planned in their heads and went with it," Baxter said. "I'm behind them 100 percent."

Baxter provides the future look. He's careless with the ball though (watch the way he carries it in games), and he dropped it on the ground last week against the Furd. Depending on how healthy he is, he could make Cal's run defense have to work a lot harder to plug up the Trojans offense, because he definitely brings the speed.

Here are the running performances this season by the Trojans:

Date Opponent Surface Result Att Yards Avg. TD
09/02/10 @ Hawaii Turf W 49-36 35 246 7.03 1
09/11/10 Virginia Grass W 17-14 33 127 3.85 0
09/18/10 @ Minnesota Turf W 32-21 38 216 5.68 2
09/25/10 @ Washington St. Turf W 50-16 39 285 7.31 2
10/02/10 Washington Grass L 31-32 39 298 7.64 4
10/09/10 @ 14 Stanford Grass L 35-37 28 108 3.86 2

Totals 212 1280 6.04 11

Caveat: Here are the running defenses they've faced: Furd (73rd), Hawaii (85th), Minnesota (100th), Washington (106th), Virginia (109th), Wazzu (last). (Cal is currently ranked 21st by the way. I'm sure that number will drop about 30 spots after we get torched by the heirs to Joe McKnight.)

Something will have to give in this one.

Quick hits for the Cal defense

This is where it begins. People have been high on the Golden Bear defense, but I still want to see how they perform against quality opponents down the Pac-10 road. The first two Pac-10 performances were promising signs, but its correlation on how we perform the rest of the season is dubious. Every offense provides a new look and it's never a certainty that a defensive scheme will properly prepare the players to attack the offense in the best way. USC's offense rarely differs though, so it might prepare Clancy Pendergast a little for what's coming his defense's way.

Don't bite too aggressively on either run or pass. This isn't a joke. In the past two games, we've looked fine against a team that exclusively ran the ball (UCLA) and exclusively passes the ball (Arizona), but now we've got a team that does both extremely well. Discipline will be key. Linebackers Michael Mohamed, D.J. Holt, Mychal Kendricks, Keith Browner and Jarred Price have to be ready to cover their gaps and not give up big gains, but also drop back and defend the tight ends (Cameron and Blake Ayles) and stay up to check the dump off options (Havili). Rotations and gap control will be critical. Overaggression against an efficient offense like Cal will end up getting us burned (like the Furd were last week in Palo Alto, to the tune of nearly 400 passing yards).

Watch the flats and the wheel route. So far no team has really tested us with spreading out the field (Oregon will do it in a few weeks), but if Pendergast is aggressive and sends the blitz, then defenders on the outside have to be ready to break through receiver blocks and make plays on the ball. Extra men inside means fewer men outside, and more responsbiilty will be placed on Darian Hagan and Marc Anthony (particularly Anthony, and probably Bryant Nnabuife if he's brought in, who has a tendency to overrun defenders) to slip blockers and make open field tackles, particularly on bubble and jailbreak screens. The secondary has been very impressive all season. They're going to have to be ready to pursue the pass options like they did against Arizona and not allow any gaps to open up in downfield coverage.

Defensive line needs to be careful not to penetrate too much this week. Remember the Trojans love to use misdirection. If the Bears decide to plug up the gaps with their linemen, Barkley could simply roll out to avoid the overpursuit, and have an open field to survey, leading to a series of many Trojan bootlegs. Hopefully we'll try something creative in place to deal with misdirection calls, because they have been the bread and butter of the USC passing game for nearly a half-decade. Cameron Jordan, Derrick Hill and Ernest Owusu have to be prepared for misdirection and get good pursuit on the quarterback whenever they can.

What new defensive looks will we see this week? Against Colorado it was OLBs lined up as DEs applying the pressure outside. Against Arizona we saw the extra safety lined up in a linebacker position to give Cal the semblance of a dime package with the flexibility to provide solid run support. Against UCLA we brought the cornerback blitz. USC is definitely the biggest pro-style team in the conference other than Cal, so what will Pendergast try to do to trip up the Trojans? Having viewed the tape, I can't see any discernible weaknesses that the Bears can easily exploit. It should be interesting to see what he comes up with and whether it backfires or not.

Tomorrow we look more indepth at the Tampa 2 defense of Monte Kiffin.