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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the USC Offense

Is this play a run? Screen? Checkdown to the tight end? Swing to the RB? OH GOD NELSON AGHOLOR IS WIDE OPEN AGAIN

Failing upward
Failing upward
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When Steve Sarkisian accepted the USC job he stated that he would continue to run the uptempo offense he implemented during his final year at Washington.  Operating primarily out of the shotgun and frequently using pistol sets, this was a run-first offense that runs to set up the pass.  Sark's debut against Fresno State was a smashing success.  USC piled up 701 yards of offense and accumulated 105 plays, then a Pac-12 record (of course, broken by Arizona against us and by Colorado against us a week later).  USC's dominant time of possession (over 38 minutes) and impressive pace of 22.13 seconds per play helped the Trojans pile up 277 rushing yards and 424 passing yards.  This performance suggested that USC may be on its way to a dominant inaugural year under Sarkisian.  That hasn't happened.  This is Seven Win Sark, after all.

USC set the bar high and has since failed to eclipse the rushing and passing yardage totals they accumulated that week.  This isn't to say that USC's offense is bad.  In fact, it's pretty good.  But they haven't lived up to what everyone expected after that first week.  Steve Sarkisian failing to live up to expectations? You don't say!


USC's passing game is anchored by QB Cody Kessler, who is quietly having one of the best seasons in the nation.  Although USC is replacing WR Marqise Lee and TE Xavier Grimble, the Trojans are enjoying their most productive passing game in years.  USC's passing attack is complicated and USC likes to push the tempo, both of which make things difficult on opposing defenses.  A typical USC pass play uses playaction to get the defense to bite on the run and uses both screens and checkdowns as safety valves for Kessler.   He doesn't often need those safety valves because he has some gifted athletes like Nelson Agholor to burn opposing secondaries.


USC's passing game relies heavily on four elements: playaction, checkdowns into the flat, screens, and Nelson Agholor out-athleting everyone in the secondary.  Most plays have between two and four of these elements.  The offense is predicated heavily on Cody Kessler's reads and, unfortunately for us, he's reading at an NFL level.  USC's pass plays are packaged such that Kessler has several options and he simply looks for where the defense has made a mistake.  Given the complexity of USC's offense--it's tough keeping track of all those moving parts--opposing defenses are often happy to oblige Kessler.

Let's first take a look at exactly WHAT NOT TO DO on defense against USC.  I kid you not, this is one of the worst plays on defense I have ever seen.  This is straight out of the Andy Buh playbook.

USC lines up with 11 personnel (1 RB, 1 TE), 1 WR on the field side (bottom) and 2 WRs on the boundary side.  Wazzu appears to be in a cover one.  They also appear to be employing a cover one strategy on the WRs at the top--apparently Wazzu has decided to cover only one of the two WRs with a defender.  That's only the beginning of the catastrophe that's about to unfold.

Kessler fakes the handoff to his RB, who then proceeds to run a swing route.  From bottom to top we have Nelson Agholor running a go route, the tight end cutting diagonally across the middle of the field, the inside receiver moving behind the line of scrimmage as if he's going to catch a screen pass, and the boundary side outside receiver running a go route.  Wazzu has one deep safety and he's going to be busy on this play.

Kessler feels like a kid in a candy store on this play. Look at this disaster below:  the lone DB at the top decided to cover the screen receiver and assumes the safety will cover the receiver on the go route; the LB assumes the safety will cover the tight end and lets him slip past, and the DB at the bottom gets burned by Agholor and needs help from the safety.  If you haven't been counting, that's three receivers whom the safety now has to cover.  This is an absolute catastrophe.

Cody Kessler delivers a perfect pass to Nelson Agholor, who quickly embarrasses the safety.  He and Kessler share the easiest touchdown of their lives.

That play is a good illustration of what USC typically does in its passing game.  It often provides an easy out or two to Kessler in the form of a swing route and a screen.  USC also likes to force defenses to cover Agholor on deep routes.  And finally, they occasionally toss in a tight end route for good measure.

Let's take a look at another play.  USC lines up in a pistol with tight trips on the field side and a lone WR on the boundary side.  Kessler will fake the handoff to Allen, who looks like he might run behind the blocks of the trips receivers.  The offensive line run blocks towards the top of the screen to sell the run.  It's not a run, however.

The lone WR at the bottom runs a post, which pulls the lone DB (circled) towards the middle of the field.  This clears a ton of room for the inside trips WR Steven Mitchell who runs an uncontested flat route thanks to the LB who blows right past him.

That LB looks like he doesn't even see Mitchell's route.  It's easy to understand why our friends at Coug Center are rather frustrated with the coaching on defense this year.

USC really likes swing routes.  Below USC lines up with 11 personnel, two WRs on the field side and one WR on the boundary side  The outside receivers run go routes, the inside receiver cuts diagonally across the field, and the TE blocks briefly in pass protection before releasing downfield (as you may recall, Oregon likes to do that with its tight ends).  USC uses playaction and run blocking to get the defense to bite on a run play.

The linebackers all flow with the run blockers to stop the run.  Because the tight end initially blocks the DE, the outside linebacker ignores him and heads up to defend the run.  This leaves no one to cover the tight end when Kessler rolls out to pass.

The TE has plenty of room to run.

Air Raid

In the next set of plays, I highlight some air raid concepts.  Air raid?!  Yes, it looks like Sark has been pulling plays from Mike Leach's playbook.

USC lines up in a 2x2 formation with a RB in the backfield.  The inside receivers will run quick out routes while the outside receivers run go routes.

Things don't quite work as planned because the pocket quickly collapses.  Kessler manages to shovel the ball to his RB Allen for a 12-yard gain.

Finally, one more piece of the Air Raid playbook.  I was quite surprised to find that USC has incorporated some of these Air Raid staples.  Prior to the snap USC motions WR #9 JuJu Smith behind the QB.  Smith and the RB head towards the sidelines on wheel routes.  Meanwhile the inside receivers run shallow crossing routes.  The lone outside receiver runs diagonally across the field.

Crossing routes are staples of the Air Raid and their effectiveness lies in the confusion they create among defenders.  Against man defense, the crossing routes create traffic among defenders as they try to stay out of each other's way while trying to keep up with their receivers.  Against a zone, these typically exploit seams between the LBs and the DBs while stretching the field horizontally.  It's not clear what happens in the play below (THANKS ESPN CAMERA OPERATORS), but it turns into a nice gain for Nelson Agholor.

Agholor picks up about 13 yards despite an atrocious "block" from JuJu Smith.


With nearly 14 TDs and 1,000 yards in the past three games, the USC passing offense has been especially productive recently.  Playing Colorado and Wazzu certainly helps, as will playing against our defense.

  • 286.4 yards per game (25th)
  • 8.5 yards per attempt (18th)
  • 165.59 efficiency rating (4th)

Let's meet the people who will be terrorizing our defense this week.

  • QB #6 Cody Kessler: 283.1 yards per game, 69.7% completions, 25 TDs, 2 interceptions, 168.19 efficiency rating
  • WR #15 Nelson Agholor: 95.9 yards per game, 13.08 yards per catch, 8 TDs
  • WR #9 JuJu Smith: 55.7 yards per game, 13.18 yards per catch, 5 TDs

Cody Kessler has quietly blossomed into one of the best QBs in the nation this year.  He struggled early last year while Kiffin was playing both Kessler and Max Wittek.  Once Kiffin was canned, Kessler improved tremendously and finished the year with 2,967 yards, 20 TDs, and 7 interceptions.  Kessler is an accurate QB who reads the field very well.  When his receivers are all covered, he is a very effective passer on the move and has the patience and vision to find and hit his open receiver.

Kessler's top receiver is the 6' 1", 190lb Nelson Agholor.  Agholor is averaging over 150 yards per game during the pass three games and will easily eclipse the 918 yards and 6 TDs he accumulated last year.  Like Marvin Jones, he's an excellent, precise route runner with great hands.  He also has the ability to create explosive plays all over the field.

USC's second-leading receiver is a big, 6' 2", 210lb freshman Juju Smith.  Like Agholor he has been extremely productive during the last three weeks and has 255 yards and 5 TDs in those games.  He's a big, physical receiver with a good burst of speed.  We will also see running back Javorius Allen in the passing game.  He averages 37 yards per game and has 1 receiving TD on the year.  We may see some action from tight end Bryce Dixon, who has 115 yards and 3 TDs on the year.

The offensive line has had plenty of turnover in the past year.  They're replacing the starting center, right guard, and right tackle (103 starts among those positions), but the backups have decent experience due to constant shuffling on the line last year.  Center Max Tuerk (20 starts prior to this year), RG Aundrey Walker (17 starts), and LT Chad Wheeler (14 starts) ensure that no single side of the line was without experience...until Wheeler tore his ACL.  Now Walker has moved over to LT.


USC's running game has found that replacing Silas Redd is not a particularly difficult process.  Redd's injuries last year allowed Javorius "Buck" Allen to get some time on the field and his early experience has paid off.  Allen is terrorizing opposing defenses: he has rushed for over 100 yards in every game but one this season and has had 6+ yards per carry in five games.  There is a very good reason teams tend to bite on USC's playaction.


USC's running game isn't particularly complicated.  It's a mix of pro-style elements: pulling guards and fullbacks as lead blockers, inside running, multi-TE sets.  What makes it tougher to defend is that multiple things are usually happening at once on the field.  As we saw before, playaction is a big component of USC's offense.  While they threaten run on passing plays, they also threaten pass on running plays.  In the play below they run the ball but also threaten to throw the screen based on pre-snap motion.

USC lines up with 11 personnel, a running back and three wide receivers.  Only two WRs are visible, but there's one out of frame at the top of the screen (THANKS ESPN CAMERA OPERATORS).  Darreus Rogers motions behind the QB and RB to threaten a screen.

Instead of throwing the screen, USC pulls a guard and uses him as Allen's lead blocker.

Kessler does an impressive job using one hand to corral a terribly high snap.  He hands off the Allen who puts a nifty move on the safety and then we're off to the races.

USC runs a very similar play below, again from 11 personnel.  USC puts George Farmer in motion.  He slips between the QB and RB in what looks like it could be a fly sweep.  Farmer keeps moving towards the top of the frame where he looks to be a receiver on a screen (he has a WR blocker nearby, not that you can tell thanks to the camera operators).

While he and Allen mesh, Kessler reads the defense and opts to hand off to his running back.  And once again, Allen jukes the safety and breaks free.

Corralling Allen is going to be a tough task for our defense.  If he breaks through the front seven he has an excellent chance of scoring a TD.


USC's running game has been inconsistent this season.  Despite having a boatload of talent at running back, USC has failed to score a rushing TD in three games.  The USC run game seems to be a boom or bust unit that will rush for 100 yards or 200+ yards.  There's not much in between.

  • 172.44 yards per game (56th)
  • 4.21 yards per game (67th)

The highs and lows of the USC running game create a mediocre average.  The Trojans only have 13 rushing TDs all season.  As a comparison, our Bears have 50% more rushing TDs than USC.  I was quite surprised by the USC running game's lack of consistent productivity.  That doesn't mean that their lead back doesn't terrify me, however.

  • RB #37 Javorius "Buck" Allen:  124.89 yards per game, 5.73 yards per carry, 8 TDs
  • RB #22 Justin Davis: 43.00 yards per game, 4.50 yards per carry, 2 TDs

We were introduced to Buck Allen when he ran for 135 yards and 2 TDs on only 6 carries against the Bears last season.  The 6'1" 220lb back is a powerful, elusive runner.  His vision continues to improve this season and when he gets into open space, he will juke a safety out of his shoes (as we saw several times in the above plays).  The junior cannot declare for the NFL Draft soon enough.


And now for the hodgepodge of stats that did not fit elsewhere.

Total Offense

USC has improved over last year's offense, but the Trojans still have work to do.

  • 34.9 points per game (28th)
  • 458.9 yards per game (34th)
  • 6.13 yards per play (40th)

After putting up 701 yards against Fresno State in the season opener, USC has only eclipsed the 500-yard mark on two more occasions this season (and averaged 8+ yards per play in both performances).  USC's offense is reasonably productive and efficient, but not quite elite.


Of course, modest production isn't much of an issue if a team is excellent on third down and in the red zone.

  • 44.76% third down conversions (30th)
  • 74.29% red zone TD conversions (7th)

And unfortunately for us, USC is indeed excellent on third down and in the red zone.

Negative Yardage

Like UCLA, USC likes moving backwards.

  • 8 turnovers (6th)
  • 2.33 sacks allowed per game (88th)
  • 7.67 tackles for loss allowed per game (118th)
  • 74.8 penalty yards per game (116th)

Although USC takes great care of the ball, the Trojans are fond of moving backwards via sacks and tackles for loss.  And it should come as a huge surprise to everyone that USC lacks discipline and gets penalized frequently.

Clock Management

Although Sark likes to push the tempo on occasion, he does not use it enough for it to show up in the statistics.

  • 30:24.44 average time of possession (56th)
  • 74.89 plays per game
  • 24.36 seconds per play (moderate pace)

USC has not run more than 70 plays since the loss to Arizona State.  Unless the USC offense makes some major changes to its game management this week, our lack of depth should not be too big of a concern.


USC runs an uptempo (at times) offense that runs to set up the pass.  USC uses heavy sets with multiple tight ends and pulling guards/fullbacks to pave the way for Buck Allen.  When the passing game gets going, USC relies heavily on deception.  USC uses playaction, screens, and swing routes to keep eyes in the backfield while relying on speedsters like Nelson Agholor to get behind the defense.  USC tends to dominate weaker defenses (Fresno State, Wazzu, Colorado), so we could have a tough time in LA this Thursday.