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Opponent Offense Preview: USC

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USC has been a completely different team since QB Sam Darnold took over.

NCAA Football: California at Southern California Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Most of you know the story. USC began the season with former Skyline High and 5-star QB prospect Max Browne at QB. With him running the offense, they stumbled through September and limped to a 1-3 start. They were blown out by Alabama and lost to both Utah and Stanford. Head Coach Clay Helton’s off-season proclamation that USC was done with “Hollywood” and would commit to toughness, physicality, and running the ball seemed a far cry from what was on the field.

In comes redshirt freshman Sam Darnold to save the day, and how he has. A mobile QB, he still lost his first start to Utah, but the Trojans have ripped off five in a row and have looked like a completely different team, on offense in particular.

The Basics

USC is one of those schools that has basically run the same offense since, like, forever: a run-first, pro-style attack. That’s changed a bit this year. In years past you would see spread concepts, and zone read concepts, but not outright implementation of either. Clay Helton will argue until the cows come home that USC does not run a spread, but a lot of what they’ve been doing since Darnold entered the fold is very spread-like, presumably to take advantage of his legs.

From a purely black-and-white perspective, USC operates out of the shotgun with a lot of three-wide-receiver sets. What sets them apart is that instead of having four receivers, like a typical spread, they keep the tight end on the field almost every down. They run the ball a bit more than a typical spread but regularly use horizontal pass plays to take advantage of their speedy and athletic receivers. Sam Darnold’s mobility no doubt opened up the offense.

As Clay Helton noted during his team’s preparation for Colorado, the new look for the offense is having two runners in the backfield (Darnold + RB), forcing defenses to load up the box, and then beating them with the pass. A lot of the language from players and coaches echoes similarities to the Husky offense: very multiple, with a strong run game, and explosiveness and efficiency in the pass game.

Quarterback

Sam Darnold (6 games as starter): 1,874 yards, 20 TDs, 4 INT, 68% completion, 8.72 yards per attempt

Since Darnold took over, USC is only one of four teams (another being Washington) that averages over 250 yards rushing and 250 yards passing per game. When looking at common opponents, the Trojan offense fares only a little worse than UW’s. Against Arizona, Cal, Oregon, and Utah, USC averaged 41.25 points/game. The Huskies averaged 50.5 points against those opponents.

What’s most surprising about Darnold is that for a freshman dual-threat QB, he’s surprisingly accurate, with only four picks while completing nearly 70% of his passes. That’s a rare combination in a young QB. Darnold is also pretty big, standing 6’4” and 225 pounds. He isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder, and can be difficult to bring down.

While Washington leads the nation by a wide margin in passing efficiency, USC still ranks 20th in the nation.

Running Backs

Ronald Jones II: 100 carries, 679 yards, 7 TDs

Justin Davis: 74 carries, 476 yards, 2 TDs

Aca’Cedric Ware: 70 carries, 366 yards, 2 TDs

Last season as a freshman, Ronald Jones II went a bit overlooked, but not so much this year. He leads the team in yards and has formed a formidable 1-2 punch with Justin Davis. In his last two games against Cal and Oregon, Jones II has 394 yards and 6 TDs. Watching him run reminds me of Jamaal Charles: the cuts, the power, the vision...and okay, fine, the dreadlocks too. The point is, Jones II is another in a long line of excellent USC running backs.

Justin Davis has been battling an ankle injury for a few weeks, but projects to be back this week against Washington. The experienced senior averages only .4 yards per rush less than Jones, but is a bit different type of runner. Both are tall at 6’1”, but Davis is more of a one-cut-and-go type of runner; think DeMarco Murray in the NFL. Not sure why it’s NFL running comparison day at UWDP, but that should tell you just how good these guys are.

Aca’Cedric Ware did not play last week against Oregon and is questionable for this weekend. If he plays, he’s another talented back: against Cal and Oregon, he rushed 32 times for 233 yards.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Juju Smith-Schuster: 48 receptions, 641 yards, 8 TDs

Darreus Rodgers: 38 receptions, 487 yards, 2 TDs

Deonte Burnett: 31 receptions, 329 yards, 4 TDs

Tyler Petite (TE): 10 receptions, 156 yards, 2 TDs

Daniel Imatorbhebhe (TE): 7 catches, 114 yards, 3 TDs

You all know the star here: Juju Smith-Schuster. As a receiver he’s got just about everything: size, speed, hands, and explosiveness. Some consider him the best draft prospect in the Pac-12 and view him as a true difference maker at the next level. He’s been quiet (by his standards) the past two games, with only eight catches for 88 yards and oddly, he’s scored all eight of his TDs in just three games - against Utah State, Arizona State, and Arizona. The UW secondary has their work cut out for them, but clearly Smith-Schuster is capable of being held out of the end zone.

Darreus Rodgers doesn’t catch a ton of TDs (his two for the season were both against Cal a couple weeks ago) but is a consistent and reliable receiver, recording at least one catch in every game. He had one against ASU, and two against Alabama, but has at least four in seven other games this season.

Deonte Burnett is the slot receiver and catches a lot of passes over the middle. Oregon tried to confuse Darnold by throwing a lot of different looks at him, including keeping two and three safeties deep. He and Burnett adjusted and torched Oregon over the middle, finishing with seven catches for 84 yards and a TD.

In true USC fashion, they are getting production from the TE group. Both Tyler Petite and Daniel Imatorbhebhe are solid pass-catching TEs with 17 receptions between them. That doesn’t sound like much until you consider that they have five TD catches among those 17 receptions - an almost 30% TD catch rate.

Offensive Line

USC sports a huge and nimble offensive line. Darnold’s mobility certainly helps, but they still only give up one sack per game. They also give up less than five tackles for loss per game. Both figures rank in the top 15 nationally. The advanced metrics bear this out too; their adjusted sack rate is sixth in the nation, second on standard downs. Where the big dropoff occurs is on passing downs (definitions here), where they’re 47th in sack rate. They also sport a less than stellar “stuff rate,” as in running plays that get stopped at or before the line of scrimmage. They rank 75th nationally in that category, getting stuffed on over 19% of carries.

This is a big and experienced group, with 131 career starts returning from past seasons. Despite a couple advanced metrics not loving the Trojans OL, this is still one of the best lines in the conference and has powered a strong running game since Sam Darnold took over.

Final Thoughts

This will be the toughest offense all season for Washington to stop: in short, because they have speed and playmakers at every position, and can hurt a defense in multiple ways. Washington has not faced an offense all season as dangerous as USC, which fields legitimate threats both on the ground and through the air. However, they haven’t fared great in the red zone this year, scoring on only 79% of attempts. What is clear is that they love to throw the ball deep in enemy territory - see 18 red zone pass TDs compared to just eight rushing. TEs Petite and Imatorbhebhe will need to be accounted for when USC is deep in Washington territory.

Normally I like when young QBs enter Husky Stadium, because they usually leave looking like shadows of themselves after a having a poor game. Sam Darnold by all accounts isn’t playing like a freshman and shows surprising moxie and poise, but he has only played two road games, losing at Utah and winning at Arizona against a team that’s all but mailed it in. None of USC’s current players, nor Clay Helton, have played/coached in Husky Stadium (they played in CenturyLink in 2012) so they likely haven’t experienced an environment like what they will see on Saturday.