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USC Offensive Preview

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It’s good guys versus bad guys this week (and for the next 3 weeks). Except this week, the bad guys killed John Wick’s dog.

NCAA Football: Arizona at Southern California Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

2684 words is not enough to explain how much I dislike USC.


Introduction

I thought of the many ways I could introduce USC, but if you’re reading this column, you already know all about USC, so I’ll make it short. USC is basically these guys:

Omaze

Losers well-past their glory years. They play dirty. I’m sure these Dodgeball stars were given 5-star recruiting rankings coming out of high school as well.

Quarterback

After a season-ending injury to JT Daniels in the first game of the season, true freshman Kedon Slovis (is that even a real name?) has taken over Graham Harrell’s Air Raid offense and guided the Trojans to a 4-3 record in games in which he took the majority of the snaps (I would use his record as a starter, but he only played the first two snaps of the Utah game, so the credit to that victory belongs to Matt Fink). As you’ll hear during the broadcast, his high school offensive coordinator was Kurt Warner, which basically means he’s unstoppable.

QB Kedon Slovis makes a poor read under pressure and throws an interception.
QB Kedon Slovis makes a poor read under pressure and throws an interception.

Of course, Slovis is a true freshman and he’s bound to make freshman mistakes, such as poor reads under pressure. Slovis does have enormous wide receiver targets, but he is liable to make mistakes when he doesn’t have much time to throw. If the Cal defense can confuse Kedon Slovis the way they’ve confused much more experienced Air Raid quarterbacks like Luke Falk, Gardner Minshew, and Anthony Gordon, it seems likely that Slovis will struggle as well. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though, as Slovis is obviously a very talented quarterback.

For one thing, you really can’t move in the pocket any better than this:

QB Kedon Slovis survives the pocket to find WR Drake London in the endzone for a touchdown.
QB Kedon Slovis survives the pocket to find WR Drake London in the endzone for a touchdown.

And of course, buying time to throw is an important skill for an Air Raid quarterback, since someone will eventually get open— and USC receivers don’t necessarily need to be open to make catches. Given time to throw, Slovis can definitely throw dimes:

QB Kedon Slovis to WR Michael Pittman in the back corner of the endzone for a touchdown.
QB Kedon Slovis to WR Michael Pittman in the back corner of the endzone for a touchdown.

Slovis was injured in the Utah game as he was literally flattened by a Utah defensive lineman, which gave way to third-string QB Matt Fink. Slovis was again shaken up for a bit last week in the ASU game and had Matt Fink in for a few drives, so it couldn’t hurt to talk about Fink as well.

Matt Fink is actually a dual-threat quarterback, and deceptively fast, considering he runs like a gazelle. Fink hasn’t run the ball much this year, which is probably a wise choice when you’re now the staring quarterback because the first two were injured, but it’s important to note that he definitely has the ability to run the ball. In years past, he would specifically play snaps where USC wanted the QB run to be an option (or, you know, run the option).

QB Matt Fink run for a 51 yard touchdown. Unsportsmanlike conduct on the USC bench for excessive celebration after the play.
QB Matt Fink run for a 51 yard touchdown. Unsportsmanlike conduct on the USC bench for excessive celebration after the play.

Fink also has a big arm. It seemed like 90% of the game plan when Fink was playing wasn’t to pick and choose his Air Raid targets carefully, but to just launch it deep for Michael Pittman Jr., and count on Pittman to come down with it.

QB Matt Fink connects with WR Michael Pittman over S Julian Blackmon and CB Tareke Lewis for a 78 yard touchdown.
QB Matt Fink connects with WR Michael Pittman over S Julian Blackmon and CB Tareke Lewis for a 78 yard touchdown.
QB Matt Fink deep to WR Michael Pittman. Why CB Tareke Lewis is the one playing press man coverage on Pittman is beyond me.
QB Matt Fink deep to WR Michael Pittman. Why CB Tareke Lewis is the one playing press man coverage on Pittman is beyond me.

Of course, this worked well against Utah, as Fink threw for 351 yards, 3 TDs, and 1 INT against Utah (232 of those yards to Michael Pittman). Washington did a much better job adjusting to this game plan, and Fink only managed 153 yards with 1 TD and 3 INTs against them. Slovis returned to start the following game.

We probably don’t need to get into the 4th string quarterback, who I presume is Jack Sears, but suffice to say he’s also a very capable quarterback. USC has ridiculous talent and depth (and the starters don’t really have the benefit of quality coaching), so there really isn’t a huge drop-off as you start getting further down the depth chart. The “but injuries!!!” excuse out of USC is quite possibly the worst excuse imaginable. It’s like complaining your McLaren broke down and you’re forced to drive your Lamborghini to work instead. WE’VE GOT A TOYOTA TERCEL OFFENSE HERE, WE DON’T WANT TO HEAR YOUR COMPLAINTS. It’s not our fault your coach doesn’t know how to drive.

Running back

Okay, I honestly have no idea who will line up at tailback this weekend. Their starting workhorse running back, Vavae Malepeai, had knee surgery and is presumably out for the season. The backup, speedster RB Stephen Carr, has been out for a month with a hamstring injury, although reports are that he’s the closest to returning. Third string RB Markese Stepp was injured in the same game as Carr, and is expected to miss 3-5 weeks after having ankle surgery.

That brought USC down to its fourth string RB Quincy Jountti, who promptly fumbled the ball on his first carry, and he lost the presumed starting role just as quickly as he found it. So who’s left?

True freshman RB Kenan Christon, the 2019 California state champion in the 100m and 200m dash. Needless to say, he’s fast.

However, it’s actually not obvious if he’ll play against Cal, because Helton has a decision to make. Christon has now played four games this season, and playing against Cal would mean that Helton would need to burn Christon’s redshirt. Late in the game against ASU last week, Helton even tried experimenting with WR Amon-Ra St. Brown taking a couple snaps from the tailback position.

Will Carr be ready to play? Will Helton burn Christon’s redshirt? Will Amon-Ra St. Brown convert to running back? Will USC abandon the run altogether? I have no idea. But I did a lot of work compiling clips of the USC running backs, so let’s take a look at them anyway.

Early reports seem to indicate that Christon will likely lose his redshirt. As previously mentioned, Kenan Christon is fast. If Christon gets good blocks and a defender takes a poor angle on the tackle, he’s gone:

RB Kenan Christon gets a block at the line and shows off breakaway speed on a 55 yard touchdown run.
RB Kenan Christon gets a block at the line and shows off breakaway speed on a 55 yard touchdown run.

Not even the first down marker can keep up with him:

RB Kenan Christon again breaks off a 30 yard touchdown run. The flag was for excessive celebration as he went to go high-five the crowd.
RB Kenan Christon again breaks off a 30 yard touchdown run. The flag was for excessive celebration as he went to go high-five the crowd.

Kenan Christon is still pretty green as a running back, so he’s not exactly the type to try to use his vision running between the tackles. That’s not to say he can’t lay the lumber if he has to:

RB Kenan Christon plows through S Aashari Crosswell on the receiving touchdown.
RB Kenan Christon plows through S Aashari Crosswell on the receiving touchdown.

Christon can also be used in the receiving game, like a much more raw version of Max Borghi:

RB Kenan Christon carries CB Jack Jones on his way to a 58 yard receiving touchdown.
RB Kenan Christon carries CB Jack Jones on his way to a 58 yard receiving touchdown.

True freshman RB Markese Stepp likely won’t play this weekend, and it’s a good thing for Cal. Although Stepp has some ball security issues, he’s by far and away the most dangerous running back on the USC roster. I remember the way he leveled someone in the USC spring game, and it’s only going to get worse for defenses from here. Markese Stepp is hands-down the most reliable 3rd and short runner in the country. Period.

RB Markese Stepp always converts 3rd and 1. Always.
RB Markese Stepp always converts 3rd and 1. Always.

I like to say various players are “power RBs,” but are you really a “power” running back if you can’t carry 5 Notre Dame defenders on your way to a first down?

RB Markese Stepp carries 5 Notre Dame defenders for a 19 yard gain.
RB Markese Stepp carries 5 Notre Dame defenders for a 19 yard gain.

Don’t worry, USC managed to lose this game anyway.

Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell likes to make a point of saying how “balanced” the run/pass game is at USC, but with the current lack of depth at running back, USC has abandoned the run game for long stretches of time. In their first 7 games, it was nearly 50-50: 238 pass attempts to 235 rush attempts. Over the past 3 games, USC has run the ball only 35% of the time. USC doesn’t want Kenan Christon getting banged up, and will try to get him the ball in open space (maybe screen passes, etc) where he can avoid taking too many big hits.

If Stephen Carr were to return, I’d note that he has a similar running style to Washington’s Salvon Ahmed. Carr is also fast, and prefers to bounce runs to the outside.

Wide receivers

Alright, now we’re getting to the meat of the article. For a long time, the passing game strategy at USC has been to have mediocre quarterbacks (Barkley? Kessler?) just throw jump balls to wide receivers that could out-talent their opposition. New offensive system or not, that strategy hasn’t changed all that much.

Let’s start with future NFL stud WR Michael Pittman Jr., the son of a former NFL player himself. A big guy like Pittman Jr. (6’4”, 220 lbs) shouldn’t be able to move this fast:

Safety help from Julian Blackmon on Michael Pittman Jr. didn’t, uh, help.
Safety help from Julian Blackmon on Michael Pittman Jr. didn’t, uh, help.

He’s a big, physical receiver, and he doesn’t have any time for your weak arm tackles:

WR Michael Pittman jukes and stiff arms his way to a 50 yard touchdown.
WR Michael Pittman jukes and stiff arms his way to a 50 yard touchdown.

While Pittman Jr. is the typical redzone target (and well, pretty much anytime target), freshman insider WR Drake London will be the target on a lot of short passes over the middle. A common theme for USC QBs: just throw it up anywhere. Your receiver will come down with it.

WR Drake London rips the ball away from S Aashari Crosswell.
WR Drake London rips the ball away from S Aashari Crosswell.

Probably not surprising that Drake London will play for both the football and the basketball team with rebounding skills like that. The other inside receiver was the preferred target of JT Daniels: his high school teammate Amon-Ra St. Brown. St. Brown has elite speed and great hands, demonstrated by the following clip where he comes down with the catch despite double-coverage:

QB Matt Fink avoids the blitz, hits WR Amon-Ra St. Brown for the touchdown despite double coverage.
QB Matt Fink avoids the blitz, hits WR Amon-Ra St. Brown for the touchdown despite double coverage.

This is a busted coverage by ASU, but you can again see St. Brown’s speed as he gets behind the defense.

WR Amon-Ra St Brown splits the safeties for a 95 yard touchdown.
WR Amon-Ra St Brown splits the safeties for a 95 yard touchdown.

On the other side of the field from Pittman Jr. is WR Tyler Vaughns. Vaughns is another big, physical receiver that will catch passes despite tight coverage.

QB Matt Fink deep to WR Tyler Vaughns against CB Jaylon Johnson.
QB Matt Fink deep to WR Tyler Vaughns against CB Jaylon Johnson.

Vaughns left the ASU game with an injury and is questionable for the Cal game.

Special teams

USC is terrible at kickoff coverage, giving up a whopping average of 29.27 yards per kickoff return (2nd worst in the FBS). The frequent 15 yard penalties after touchdowns probably aren’t helping, but they have a fundamental weakness in their kickoff coverage, and the potential for a big play on the kickoff is there. Cal isn’t the type of offense to consistently drive down the field, but it will certainly help if USC gives them shorter fields to work with.

Playing armchair coach/psychologist here, I’d guess it’s because you need to work well as a unit to be effective in covering kicks. However, individual players can block kicks by fighting through blocks, and this is suddenly a concern after a couple of low kicks last week by Cal kicker Greg Thomas.

The speedy and elusive WR Velus Jones still handles the kick return duties for USC, and he’s averaging 24.5 yard per kickoff return, 2nd in the Pac-12. He has 1 kick return touchdown this season as well.

USC also has a very solid kicker in Chase McGrath, who has a season-long 52 yard FG.

Dumb Penalties

No USC preview would ever be complete without talking about their propensity to shoot themselves in the foot. They might gain 400 yards on offense, but they’re also going to go 100 yard the wrong way due to penalties as well. USC is dead-last in the Pac-12 and #122 of 130 in the FBS in penalty yards, averaging 72.4 penalty yards per game. Just looking at the numbers doesn’t accurately capture just how costly USC penalties typically are.

Remember in last year’s game when Cal held a narrow 15-14 lead late in the 4th quarter with 3:28 remaining, and Chase Garbers threw a pass to Nikko Remigio at the sidelines, but it was ruled that his foot was out of bounds after a replay? It turned out that it didn’t matter, because Cal was bailed out by a dumb unsportsmanlike conduct penalty by CB Iman Marshall, who couldn’t help but pointlessly talk trash to the Cal sidelines:

Pay no attention to the two refs standing right there, Mr. Marshall, please talk as much as you’d like.
Pay no attention to the two refs standing right there, Mr. Marshall, please talk as much as you’d like.

Instead of getting the ball back with 3 minutes left needing only to get into field goal range, Cal was granted an automatic first down, and was able to run out the rest of the clock to win the game.

One of USC’s biggest problems is a complete disregard for the whistle, as they often continue fighting long after a play has been blown dead.

Let’s first review the Vic Wharton-Olaijah Griffin saga from last year (imgur gallery here, or CGB comment here). It’s pretty clear this is less “cheeky NFL star talks trash to get in his opponents’ heads” and more “complete and total lack of discipline.”

Karma aside, there’s no reason for this sort of play:

CB Olaijah Griffin tussles with WR Vic Wharton after the play.
CB Olaijah Griffin tussles with WR Vic Wharton after the play.

CB Olaijah Griffin may have changed his number, but not his attitude. The following play is entirely dead; a false start negated the entirety of this play, and Mycah Pittman is simply jogging with the ball the way players recover “fumbles” just in case. This is at least 5 seconds after the whistle:

CB Olaijah Griffin scuffles with WR Johnny Johnson on a dead-ball play.
CB Olaijah Griffin scuffles with WR Johnny Johnson on a dead-ball play.

Really tough, buddy:

CB Olaijah Griffin again commits an unnecessary roughness penalty with a takedown long after the whistle. I don’t even need to tell you when the whistle is blown because you can see all the other USC players stop but one.
CB Olaijah Griffin again commits an unnecessary roughness penalty with a takedown long after the whistle. I don’t even need to tell you when the whistle is blown because you can see all the other USC players stop but one.

Lest you think this is a problem with a single player, I assure you it’s not:

Keep an eye on DE Christian Rector, #89. Yes, the whistle has already been blown a few times, but a few extra uppercuts at the ball carrier can’t hurt.
Keep an eye on DE Christian Rector, #89. Yes, the whistle has already been blown a few times, but a few extra uppercuts at the ball carrier can’t hurt.

There’s no better play that exemplifies USC values than the following one. QB Matt Fink throws an interception, and left tackle Austin Jackson manages to taunt multiple Utah players who pay him no mind. Usually you taunt your opponent when you’re winning. At USC, there’s no wrong time to taunt your opponent!

Forgive my amateur GIF editing skills on this one, it’s hard to demonstrate this penalty in GIF form.
Forgive my amateur GIF editing skills on this one, it’s hard to demonstrate this penalty in GIF form.

USC is the team that is the most likely to intentionally injure an opposing player, whether it’s a late hit out of bounds, roughing the passer, launching themselves for a targeting foul, or just any other type of miscellaneous cheap shot:

LB Kana’i Mauga takes a cheap shot at Herbert’s knee.
LB Kana’i Mauga takes a cheap shot at Herbert’s knee.

USC very frequently shoots themselves in the foot with this sort of play. Again, it’s not just about the penalty, but the timing of these unnecessary penalties. Here they are committing an unnecessary roughing the passer penalty on 3rd down to negate an interception, which then set up the ASU touchdown to make it a one-score game in the 4th quarter.

S Talanoa Hufanga interception negated by an unnecessary roughing the passer penalty.
S Talanoa Hufanga interception negated by an unnecessary roughing the passer penalty.

Even when things are going well, USC still draws stupid penalties. You might have noticed a lot of my previous offensive highlights happened to include penalties for excessive celebrations. I didn’t even have to look for examples of this one, as they happen every game:

RB Markese Stepp powers into endzone, then draws an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his celebration with FS1 analyst Reggie Bush.
RB Markese Stepp powers into endzone, then draws an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his celebration with FS1 analyst Reggie Bush.

You might think that former USC RB Reggie Bush should know better, but USC’s disregard for the rules has been pretty well-established by now. At least Bush is allowed to be paid for his services now.

The following is a penalty that USC got away with:

WR Tyler Vaughns with a late takedown after the play, right in front of the referee, with the game on the line in overtime. This wasn’t called a penalty simply because it was OT. Don’t worry, USC found a different way to lose.
WR Tyler Vaughns with a late takedown after the play, right in front of the referee, with the game on the line in overtime. This wasn’t called a penalty simply because it was OT. Don’t worry, USC found a different way to lose.

An unnecessary roughness penalty here would have pushed USC out of field goal range in a game when they were trailing by 3 in overtime. USC might only have 72.4 penalty yards per game, but the timing of these penalties makes it feel like so much more. If you want to take a 15 yard excessive celebration or unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when you’re up 4 touchdowns on Arizona, be my guest. The fact that they continue to commit these kinds of penalties with the game on the line is ridiculous. USC could immediately win an extra 2+ games a season by disciplining their players. USC has as much talent and depth as any team in the country, but Helton apparently can’t afford to bench any of his starters for playing like this.

Conclusion

USC is a team that often starts fast and gets to an early lead, before finding a way to choke that lead away. We all remember the Cal game last year, but you only have to go as far back as last week to see that USC jumped out to a 28-3 lead over ASU in the 1st quarter, but managed only 3 points in the final 3 quarters. They committed a dumb penalty to negate an interception (seen above), and were a 2-point conversion away from 31-28 USC in the 4th quarter. Even with the 31-26 lead, a true freshman quarterback playing in his first game for ASU managed to drive down the field, and USC needed an extremely athletic play from DE Christian Rector to deflect a pass at the line of scrimmage to himself for an interception to seal the game.

That is USC in a nutshell. They’re going to commit dumb penalties and make the game a lot closer than it probably should be, and they’re going to rely on nothing but talent to win. If Cal can weather the early storm and refrain from stupid penalties themselves, this is a game that Cal can definitely win.