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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the USC Trojans Offense

Previewing the USC offense that proves that all the talent in the world cannot overcome a struggling offensive line. Can Cal stop the conference's third-worst offense?

Has Ed Orgeron revitalized the USC offense? No. Not really.
Has Ed Orgeron revitalized the USC offense? No. Not really.
Steve Dykes

"Don't believe the hype" - Public Enemy

You may have heard by now that USC is experiencing a resurgence under Ed Orgeron. Now that Lane Kiffin is out of the way, the Trojans are realizing their potential and ready to challenge for the Pac-12 South title. That sounds like a great narrative, doesn't it? Don't believe the hype. The USC offense hasn't changed much under Orgeron. The playcalling has changed a bit, but this is still the third-worst offense in the conference. Don't believe me? Here's a fun fact: over the past three weeks USC has scored 60 points. Cal has scored 62 over the same span of time. Yes, USC has been outperformed by the same Cal offense that has inspired hundreds of comments here and endless hand-wringing. Surely this is due to difference of schedule? Nope. USC has faced the 40th, 60th, and 72nd-rated scoring defenses, hardly world-beaters. Cal has faced the 26th, 42nd, and 72nd-rated scoring defenses, a somewhat tougher slate than USC's. While USC has won 6 games this season, it has primarily won with defense. This leads to an interesting reversal of roles this week. Instead of terrifying you with the preview of the offense while Nick makes you feel better by previewing the opponent's defense, we've swapped this week. Today I'll give you some optimism and Nick will crush all your dreams tomorrow with the defense preview.


This is pretty similar to the same USC offenses we have been seeing for the past several years. It's a run-first, pro-style offense that uses its productive running game to open up the passing lanes, particularly with play-action passes. We'll see lots of power running where the RB follows a lead blocker, usually a fullback or a pulling guard. We'll frequently see pre-snap movement as USC tries to diagnose the defensive coverage. Although the passing game will throw fewer screens than it did under Kiffin, we'll see a familiar combination of intermediate and deep routes. While the scheme may become a chess game that tests Buh's gameplanning, the primary concern for the Bears will be stopping USC's athletes. As we will see in several of these examples, terrific individual effort makes the difference between an ordinary gain and a huge play.


USC utilizes many basic power-running concepts: pulling guards, I (and offset I) formations, and heavy personnel sets (21, 22, 30).

Below USC lines up with 11 player personnel (1 RB, 1 TE). On this particular play they will pull the left guard to serve as the running back's lead blocker.


USC blocks everyone in the Notre Dame front seven except the backside outside linebacker (on the 5-yard line near the top of the screen). Silas Redd follows his lead blocker for an 8-yard gain.


This offensive line is at its best when its creating running lanes for Silas Redd and company.

This next play illustrates a common pattern in the USC offense: the tight end moves across the formation prior to the snap. This time USC has 21 personnel (2 RBs, 1 TE). This movement helps the offense diagnose whether the defense is in man or zone coverage. Because the defense shifts slightly as the TE moves (as opposed to a single player following the TE's movement), the offense knows the D is in zone coverage.Usc7-1_large

The TE moves into place on the field side of the formation.


The USC center takes on the DT one-on-one while the tackles and guards pair up to double-team their respective defensive ends. The moving TE will block the playside outside linebacker and the fullback will pave the way for the USC running back.


What USC does in the running game isn't particularly complicated. While the defense shouldn't have difficulty diagnosing the running plays, it could have trouble with USC's tremendous athletes.

Here the USC RB Tre Madden will run off-tackle to the boundary side of the field (top side in the image). I won't bother to illustrate the blocking patterns because the terrible camera angle at the Coliseum makes it very difficult to see what's going on in the trenches.


The line seals the edge well and Madden bounces outside for a decent gain.


The Arizona safety quickly closes in to turn this into a 2 or 3-yard gain. It looks like USC might be stuck in third-and-long.


The safety takes out Madden's legs, which should send him straight into the ground.


Or not. Madden does the world's lowest hurdle over the defender and miraculously manages to stay on his feet.


Unable to wrap up Madden's legs, the safety watches in horror as Tre rumbles down the field for a big gain. Madden makes him pay for not properly tackling him.


This is a common theme for these USC running backs. They are extremely difficult to tackle and frequently turn modest gains into big plays.

Unfortunately, their receivers frequently do the same thing.


First let's take a look at some of the concepts in USC's passing game. They will use anywhere from 2 to 5 receivers on any given play. With Nelson Agholor and a now-healthy Marqise Lee as deep threats on any given play, USC usually uses a combination of deep and shallow routes. Just like they did (or didn't, actually) against Oregon State, Cal needs to keep an eye out for running backs and tight ends sneaking out into open space. Speaking of which...!

USC lines up 4 receivers here.


The outside receivers will run to the LoS and stop while the inside receivers run deep corner routes. The RB Tre Madden also gets involved and runs a go route right down the middle of the field. If the inside receivers bring the safeties down the field, then Madden could have a nice cushion if the linebackers assume a safety will pick him up.


Kessler prepares to deliver a strike to Madden.


The boundary side safety (top of screen, not pictured) follows the receiver while the field side safety (circled, bottom)...does something. He's not in position to defend Madden or the other WR on a go route. The circled LB is a little late in picking up Madden.


So Madden catches the ball for a nice 25-yard reception. Fortunately the other safety is in position to stop Madden.


Not that it does him much good...


Madden breaks the tackle and charges another 30 yards down the field before being caught by another Arizona defender.


And he drags that defender 7 yards into end zone.


Morals of the story: 1) watch the RB as a possible receiver, 2) MAKE A TACKLE.

Speaking of making tackles...

USC lines up with 3 receivers and a TE.


From top to bottom, the boundary side receiver runs a ~10-yard in route, the TE runs a drag route behind the linebackers, De'Von Flournoy (the focal receiver for this play) runs a go route, and the bottom WR runs an in route.


De'Von Flournoy finds a nice seam in the defense and catches a well thrown pass from Cody Kessler. Fortunately for Arizona, they have him surrounded and they should still force a third-and-long (notice this play was 2nd and a whopping 22).


Two defenders converge on Flournoy.


And he shakes them off with little effort.


Notice that this player grabs Flournoy just past the 40-yard line.


And Flournoy doesn't get taken down until around the 28 yard line.


Flournoy's athleticism turns this from a 12-yard gain into a 31-yard gain.

A hallmark of the pro-style offense, playaction is a big component of the Trojan offense. Their productive running game often baits defenses into biting on playaction fakes.

Below USC lines up in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs).


We only have two receivers on this play. On the field side Nelson Agholor (our focal WR on this play) runs a go route while the other WR runs a curl.


Kessler fakes the handoff. Notice how none of the DBs bite on the run. Both of these receivers will be double covered.


No matter. Agholor is fast enough to burn the DBs. Pass protection holds long enough for Kessler to deliver an accurate ball (highlighted) to Agholor for a 62-yard TD pass.


Let's see another playaction. USC lines up in the diamond. Once again, the Trojans only have 2 WRs.


The fullbacks in the diamond will run wheel routes while the WRs run go routes.


The playaction gets all three of the circled defenders (2 LBs, 1 corner) to spend a split second too long staring at the RB. Nelson Agholor slips behind them.


Kessler delivers an accurate pass. Although the safety looks like he'll force Agholor out around the 8, we all know this isn't the case after seeing the last few plays.


Agholor defies gravity and manages to slip across the goal line for a 30-yard TD.

To recap: this is a run-first pro-style offense that uses the run to open up the passing lanes, particularly with playaction. Also, USC's players cannot be tackled, apparently.


If any team knows the pain Cal feels on defense, it's USC's offense. They've suffered catastrophic injuries and this has been exacerbated by the scholarship reductions. In the past few weeks they have had as few as 32 total players available for practice. While their offense has generally struggled no matter how healthy they have been, the injuries have eliminated continuity at most positions this season. Let's get to know the members of this depleted USC offense.


Cody Kessler: 6' 1", 215 lbs., So.

Now that USC's awful two-quarterback experiment is over, Cody Kessler has taken over as the Trojans' sole quarterback. The sophomore signal caller is a reliable passer and has tallied between 200 and 300 yards in every game of the Orgeron era. His accuracy has gone up in each game under Orgeron, but his efficiency has wavered from game to game. If given time, he's an accurate QB. The USC line has struggled to give him time this season--he's getting sacked almost twice as often as Goff this season. He hasn't been surrounded by much consistency this season: receivers, running backs, and O-linemen have been in and out of the lineup with injuries. Not surprisingly, he's been pretty streaky. He'll miss several passes then complete 10 out of 12. Cal needs to keep him pressured and prevent him from getting in a rhythm.


  • Improving accuracy
  • Generally won't lose games for USC
  • Has Robert Woods, Nelson Agholor, and Xavier Grimble to pass to this week
  • Streaky, inconsistent
  • Generally won't win games for USC

Running back

Tre Madden: 6' 1", 220 lbs., So.

*Silas Redd: 5' 10", 200 lbs., Sr.

(Fullback) Jahleel Pinner: 5' 11", 240 lbs., So.

This is the strength of the USC offense. The Trojans have rushed for more than 100 yards in every game but one this season, and they have exceeded 200 yards on four occasions. The unit has not enjoyed much continuity, however. Currently, the Trojans have just 3 healthy running backs on the roster. Tre Madden was the primary back during the first five games of the season, but he suffered a hamstring injury against Arizona and has not been a factor since. The converted linebacker is a big, physical back can break arm tackles and carry defenders after initial contact. Five-star true freshman Justin Davis was off to a strong start before getting injured. Fortunately for USC, fellow youngster Javorious "Buck" Allen had a breakout game last week with 133 yards and 3 TDs. He and Silas Redd will anchor the USC ground attack against Cal. Redd's name should sound familiar, as he had a solid performance against the Bears last season. He ran for 158 yards and a TD and he finished the year with 905 yards and 9 TDs. Like the rest of the USC RBs, he's a tough, physical runner who will punish players who try to arm-tackle him.


  • Talented stable of backs
  • Big, tough, physical runners


  • Injuries everywhere
  • No depth

Wide Receiver

*Marqise Lee: 6' 0", 195 lbs., Jr.

Nelson Agholor: 6' 0", 185 lbs., So.

While the running backs are the most productive group on the USC offense, the receivers are the most dangerous. USC is led by Marqise Lee, one of the best receivers in the nation. He caught 11 passes for 94 yards and 2 TDs against the Bears last season and over the course of the season he accumulated 14 TDs and an astonishing 1,721 receiving yards (15th all time in a single season). He became USC's first-ever Biletnikoff Award winner. Although he has been injured recently, he should be back to full strength against the Bears. Lee will probably be the first receiver drafted next year despite this year's disappointing production. He is a tremendous athlete who catches everything thrown his way. He is fast and has great vision in open space, which makes it difficult for DBs to stop him in an open field. In case they do catch him, he's powerful enough to break tackles. If he has one weakness, it's that he isn't great at maintaining separation from DBs.

Sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor has filled in admirably for Lee as the team's primary receiver for most of the season. With Robert Woods and Marqise Lee on the field, he did not receive much attention last year. He only tallied 340 yards and 2 touchdowns. He's been used all over the field this season: crossing routes, deep posts, hitches/curls. He's a versatile receiver with great speed and improved ball-handling skills.


  • Lee may be the best receiver in the country and is finally healthy again
  • Agholor has performed admirably as team's top receiver


  • No longer have Matt Barkley delivering passes to them
  • Injuries have forced walk-ons into the lineup

Tight End

*Xavier Grimble: 6' 5", 250 lbs., Jr.

This is a unit that should strike fear into our hearts. Xavier Grimble is an early-round draft pick next year thanks to his ideal size and impressive athleticism. He's solid in run blocking and very difficult to bring down when he catches the ball. His backup Randall Telfer is a big, reliable TE who would probably start for most teams. Unfortunately, USC doesn't have any healthy tight ends. I'm not kidding. All four of the team's sat out last week against Oregon State and only walk-on Chris Willson played two weeks ago against Utah. Telfer will not play this weekend due to an injury. Xavier Grimble was available to play last weekend after recovering from a shoulder injury, but he sat out the contest. Sophomore backup Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick will also miss this weekend's game with injury. At best, USC will have two TEs available.


  • Two NFL-caliber tight ends (when healthy)


  • All four TEs sat out last week and only walk-on Chris Willson played two weeks ago

Offensive Line

(LT) Chad Wheeler: 6' 7", 275 lbs., RS Fr.

*(LG) Max Tuerk: 6' 6", 285 lbs., So.

*(C) Marcus Martin: 6' 3", 310 lbs., Jr.

*(RG) Aundrey Walker: 6' 6", 300 lbs., Jr.

*(RT) Kevin Graf: 6' 6", 295 lbs., Sr.

The USC offensive line is another unit that has been plagued by injuries. The line was down to seven healthy bodies a few weeks ago. USC should have most of its first-team linemen playing this week, however. This is not a typical USC O-line of the past decade. They have struggled with pass protection and been decent with run blocking. Despite returning four starters from a line that allowed only 17 sacks last season, USC is 97th in the nation with 22 sacks allowed. The line has struggled mightily against solid defensive fronts, particularly against ASU and Notre Dame.

The line has several players with great potential; they simply haven't been performing as well this year. Left guard Max Tuerk is a tough, tenacious blocker who earned spots on several freshman All-American teams last season. Marcus Martin has missed time with injury and is adjusting to the center position after playing left guard. He was a consensus freshman All-American guard in 2011. Although he's a huge guard, Aundrey Walker has not fulfilled the potential of his massive, physical frame. Next to him is Kevin Graf, a good run blocker who has also missed time with injury. These starters should all be available this week, however.


  • Better at run blocking
  • Decent experience


  • Lousy pass protection
  • Injuries everywhere; no depth


For once, the stats section will not end with leave you with that sinking feeling of doom.

Individual Stats


  • Cody Kessler: 1,807 yards (62.6%, 8.1 yards per attempt), 10 TDs, 6 interceptions, 140.45 efficiency rating
Although the USC passing game was a laughingstock at the beginning of the season, Cody Kessler has improved dramatically over the course of the season. Under Ed Orgeron, Kessler is averaging 244 passing yards per game. He hasn't exceeded 300 in any game this season, nor has he accumulated fewer than 200 under Orgeron. He's been fairly accurate overall, but he periodically has inaccurate games. He doesn't throw many touchdowns nor does he take great care of the ball.


  • Tre Madden: 671 yards (5.24 ypc), 3 TDs
  • Justin Davis: 361 yards (6.81 ypc), 6 TDs
  • Silas Redd: 332 yards (4.74 ypc), 1 TD
  • Javorius Allen: 270 yards (6.00 ypc), 5 TD

Although USC's running backs have been in and out of the lineup with injuries, they've been productive overall. Leading rusher Tre Madden had 583 yards in the first 5 games but has not been a factor since his hamstring injury. Davis had impressive productivity (for a freshman) before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Silas Redd has returned from injury with solid productivity: he ran for over 100 yards against Utah and Oregon State. Javorius Allen had a breakout game against Oregon State last week as he tallied 133 yards and 3 TDs.


  • Nelson Agholor: 612 yards (19.13 ypc), 3 TDs
  • Marqise Lee: 508 yards (13.73 ypc), 2 TDs
  • Tre Madden: 201 yards (14.36 ypc), 4 TDs

With Marqise Lee missing time due to injury, Nelson Agholor has become the team's most productive receiver this season. Now that Lee is healthy again, Agholor will no longer have to shoulder the load. Lee returned with 105 yards and a touchdown against Oregon State last week.

Team Stats


  • 25.3 points per game (83rd)
  • 391.9 yards per game (78th)
This is the least productive USC offense in years. Despite the coaching change, the offense's scoring has not improved (they actually average fewer points under Orgeron than they did under Kiffin). USC is 11th in the conference in scoring (guess which team is last) and 10th in total yardage.


  • 213.8 yards per game (83rd)
  • 7.9 yards per attempt (42nd)
  • 134.83 efficiency rating (60th)

The Trojans are impressive in neither their quality nor quantity of passing statistics. The passing game is serviceable, but not used as much as the running game. USC passes about 27 times per game but rushes 40 times per game.


  • 178.11 yards per game (59th)
  • 4.50 yards per carry (58th)

Although USC has a run-first offense, their rushing offense is thoroughly average. Both their production and efficiency are close to the national average.


  • 30.00% third down conversions (114th)
  • 45.45% fourth down conversions (74th)
  • 57.69% red zone touchdowns (83rd)

Again, there is nothing particularly frightening here. In fact, that third-down conversion rate is downright turrible.

Ball Management

  • 11 turnovers (30th)
  • 33:29.00 average time of possession (8th)
  • 30.19 seconds per play (pace = glacial)

The USC offense takes good care of the ball and holds onto it for a long time. Their extremely slow pace coupled with their run-heavy offense gives them a very lopsided time of possession.

Negative Yardage

  • 2.44 sacks allowed per game (90th)
  • 6.56 takcles for loss allowed per game (94th)
  • 59.9 penalty yards per game (97th)

The USC offensive line has struggled in pass protection and is allowing 2.44 sacks per game. This is particularly bad when you note how heavily the Trojans rely on the running game. Consider this: Cal has allowed 26 sacks on 480 passing attempts while USC has allowed 22 on only 243 passing attempts. That's downright abysmal.

This year's USC team continues the proud tradition of racking up tons of stupid penalties. It continues to do so even under Orgeron.


This is a USC offense that can help Andy Buh's defense build on last week's decent performance against Arizona. USC has injury issues at nearly every position and has no depth. They're best at running the ball, although their productivity and efficiency at running the ball are merely average. They have two NFL-caliber receivers, but inconsistency at QB and pass protection issues have limited their productivity. This offense has (or had, until injuries) potential, but is mired in mediocrity and is no better than 10th in the Pac-12. The return of Robert Woods may give USC fans optimism, but his return won't fix this offense's glaring issues.