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Know Your Enemy: Previewing the USC Offense

“Enemy” being a particularly apt term in this case...

NCAA Football: Southern California at Arizona Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

When you’re in the depths of a losing streak like the one Cal is riding against USC, every year seems like it could be “the year.” Sonny Dykes is Charlie Brown, Clay Helton is Lucy, and this time we’re finally gonna kick that football straight to the moon. This time, things will be different. Right?

I don’t want to dwell too much on the historical implications of this game, partly because they’re too depressing to mention and partly because I don’t want to give SC fans the satisfaction. So let’s leave aside for a moment the Bears’ seemingly preternatural futility against the Trojans. These are just two teams to look at in isolation—let’s call them the Good Guys and the Bad Guys. Don’t think too hard about which is which.

The Bad Guys, as it were, have a pretty pedestrian offense. They score about 28 points per game, run about as much as they pass, and don’t commit a lot of turnovers. They’re oozing with talent at the skill positions, but that hasn’t always been enough to put up big numbers, especially against talented defenses.

The Good Guys (really, could be anyone) don’t have a particularly talented defense. And the defense they do have is coming off a short rest following a very long football game. They’ve got a lot of grit and the capacity to make some extremely timely stops, but they haven’t shown that they can play four hours of consistent D.

Obviously this is only one part of the story. The Bears—er, Good Guys—are probably going to allow 40-something points in this game. (At the very least, it’ll save you a lot of heartache if you just take that as a given.) Their ability to eke out a win depends a lot more on whether the Cal/Good Guy University offense can put together a complete performance of its own. But that’s none of my business. My business is to introduce you to the guys they’re going to allow 40-something points to.

Also, maybe don’t watch this video if you want to preserve your remaining optimism.


Clay Helton had a lot of decisions to make heading into his first full season as USC’s head coach, none more important than his choice of starting quarterback. His pick, junior Max Browne, turned out to be (probably) the wrong one. Browne struggled in three starts, throwing two TDs and two picks on the way to a 1-2 record. To be fair, his losses came against very tough defensive teams in Alabama and Stanford. He might well have found his footing with a bit more time, but the media was coming down hard on Helton and a change had to be made.

However the Browne experiment might have turned out, his head coach looks pretty smart for making the move to redshirt frosh Sam Darnold when he did. After a narrow loss to 24th ranked Utah, Darnold’s Trojans reeled off three wins to put themselves back in the Pac-12 South title hunt. The freshman QB has put up some nice numbers of his own: he boasts a 67% completion rate, 13 TDs, and just two picks. Darnold has earned praise for his ability to spread the ball around his receiving corps, but he also deserves notice for his ability to tuck it and run. And he’s getting better. He threw for five TDs against Arizona in last week’s game. Arizona’s defense is admittedly suspect, but that’s still a lot of touchdowns.

Running Backs

Even though the Trojans are coming off a bye week, their offense is still navigating a handful of worrisome injuries. Justin Davis, the team’s leading rusher, is listed as questionable for this Thursday’s game with an ankle sprain he suffered against Colorado. The Trojans still rushed for 320 yards (!) against Arizona without him, but he’s a significant contributor whose presence will be missed if he indeed cannot play. Sophomore Ronald Jones II would take his place, although the young back has struggled to find the same explosiveness that made him such a breakout star in his freshman season. He’s averaging 4.6 yards per carry in 2016, down from 6.5 last season.

If even a matchup against Cal’s porous defense can’t spring Jones for a big day, he’ll have the support of two other sophomores in Aca’Cedric Ware and Dominic Davis. Ware starred in last week’s game, rushing for 103 yards on 12 carries. Davis, meanwhile, turned in an 85-yard run of his own against the Wildcats.

Receiving Corps

The Trojans’ stable of talented upperclassman pass-catchers took a hit when junior Steven Mitchell was ruled out with an ACL tear suffered against Arizona. The speedy slot receiver, one of Darnold’s preferred targets, will yield his spot to sophomore Deontay Burnett. The two were already sharing playing time and share a similar skillset, so perhaps the drop-off there won’t be too severe.

Also prepared to pick up the slack, as always, is JuJu Smith-Schuster. Now in his junior season, Smith-Schuster leads the team with 40 receptions and eight scores. He missed some practice time last week after hurting his back in the Arizona game, but he’s expected to be ready to play against the Bears. Darnold’s other top weapons are senior Darreus Rogers and the tight end tandem of Tyler Petite and Daniel Imatorbhebhe. Both TEs are impressive athletes (and big dudes, over 6’4/230 each) that have made solid contributions with just a few targets. Imatorbhebhe, a redshirt freshman, has two touchdowns on just six looks.

It’s pronounced ee-MAT-tor-bay-bay, for the record.

Offensive Line

The USC offensive line struggled to stay healthy last year, trotting out 10 different starters at various points in the season. That shuffle appears to be paying off now, as four of the projected starters against Cal saw significant starting time in 2015. All five starters are upperclassmen, including All-Pac-12 second team RT Zach Banner. Only center Nico Falah is a relatively new face, and he’s held the starting job since Toa Lobendahn got hurt in the opener against Alabama. The all-upperclassman look has clearly worked out, as the Trojans have only yielded eight sacks this season.

So no, this USC offense isn’t as blatantly terrifying as some of its previous iterations. Darnold & Co have been more than competent in recent weeks, but a combination of injuries and new pieces make it hard to judge how heigh their ceiling can be. One element to look out for in light of Cal’s extreme bend-but-don’t-break tendencies is USC’s trouble converting in the red zone. The Trojans rank 105th in red zone scoring percentage, walking away from 33% of trips without points. If Cal can capitalize on those free possessions (something they’ve often failed to do this season), they can give themselves a chance. And if not, we’ll have two extra days to dwell on it!