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Opponent Offense Preview: USC Trojans

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Looking ahead to a talented but unstable USC offense

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

Who’s going to start at QB for USC this weekend? Who knows!

...probably Matt Fink.

Key Stats

Points per game: 33.3

Team yards per rush: 3.6

Pass success rate: 53.91% (#10)

Explosive rate: 15% (#43)

Havoc rate: 15% (#48)

Yards per play: 6.39

Offensive Philosophy

I still have a hard time wrapping my head around USC being an air raid school now. The program that made “student body right” famous (i.e. a toss sweep to the tail back) is ditching the old pro-style playbook and going modern air raid. I won’t bore with you to death with the intricacies of the offense because (1) you’re all pretty well aware of what the air raid offense is and (2) I don’t know said intricacies. But, I do know what OC and former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell is looking for in his offense.

When most think air raid, they think of 5 WR sets every play, no tight ends, and passing 60 times a game. In fact, the most pass attempts by a USC QB this season has been 34. Harrell likes to have a healthy run game threat and they run the ball much more than Mike Leach’s air raid and do involve the TE...a little (3 total catches by USC TE this year). The Harrell system has a grand total of 12 passing concepts, and plays can be called with just one word. This is all in an effort to simplify things and let USC’s athleticism shine. Things aren’t perfect - the run game is pretty hit or miss - but the fact they are on their 3rd string QB and still scoring points says a lot about the system and the talent on the roster.

The objective is to have a set of simple plays that are repped to death, so the offense can out execute, not necessarily out scheme, the defense. Like many air raid concepts, there should be an open option for the QB on every single play, with route combinations dependent on the look from the defense. However, there’s a bit of “hero ball” going on, with [insert healthy USC QB] just throwing up what could be charitably described as a 50/50 ball, only for a USC receiver to haul it in while being draped in coverage. That is basically the USC offense right now.

Key Players

Thanks to Dawgman for the depth chart:

QB Matt Fink

Back in May, Matt Fink was ready to pull the trigger on a transfer to Illinois, but decided to stick with USC. He ended up being the third QB on the roster, and probably didn’t think he’d be the starter before October. With true freshman QB Kedon Slovis still in concussion protocol and unable to play, Fink likely gets the starting nod Saturday. In his first meaningful game as a Trojan against Utah, he completed 70% of his passes for 351 yards and 3 TDs, with nearly 12 yards per attempt. With no help from the run game, Fink was the offense.

He’s got better athleticism than your classic USC QB and can escape pressure in the pocket. He doesn’t have the strongest arm and even in this great play, he really arches the ball to get it the distance. Thankfully, he’s got four elite WR to throw to.

Starting WRs: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Michael Pittman Jr., and Tyler Vaughns

I decided to focus on the big three, instead of just one, because they are so critical to this offense. Pittman is #1 in receptions, yards, and touchdowns and is the leader of this group. He’s a real physical specimen who has linebacker size with receiver athleticism. He’s just a big, strong dude who runs and catches incredibly well for a player his size. Tyler Vaughns is the next most targeted receiver, and while not as physical as Pittman, he has incredible length and body control to make some unreal catches. He’s only 190 pounds at 6-2 but uses his leaping ability, body control, and catch radius to make difficult catches look easy. Finally, there is Amon-Ra St. Brown. He doesn’t have the size or exceptional athleticism (though that’s not to say he’s un-athletic by any means) of his teammates, but if WR is all about getting open and catching the ball, this guy does that. He’s a very natural receiver with excellent feel for routes and making adjustments to catch the ball.

RB Vaevae Malepeai

The USC run game has been a bit off this year, likely with all the focus being on throwing the ball. But Malepeai has been having a solid and consistent season. Despite some offensive line woes, he’s averaged 4.5 YPC per carry with four TDs. He’s got excellent feet, and is a classic between the tackles runner and “every down” back. He breaks tackles but doesn’t just run guys over - he has some wiggle to his game. He usually gets the most carries on the team but against Utah that was only 11. Despite this, he’s clearly the RB the coaches trust, especially late in games. Over 35% of his carries have come in fourth quarters this season.

X-Factor

The DBs are the obvious choice - they have to make plays on the ball - but I’m going DL on this one. I really liked the creative packages the coaches rolled out to get pressure against BYU, like having Ryan Bowman lined up as a 3-tech DT. I was also encouraged by Levi Onwuzurike, and Benning Potoa’e continues to come on in his new position on the interior. USC’s offensive line has given up 5 sacks in 4 games for 38 lost yards - the exact same numbers as Washington. So, not bad. But, USC went to the air raid partially to relieve the pressure from their offensive line which has hardly been elite recently. At the same time, Washington’s DL has looked very promising but haven’t quite been as devastating as years past. They let Zach Wilson run a little too much and will have to hit Matt Fink and get the USC offense off schedule. The air raid offense begins to fall apart when the QB is under pressure the whole time. Thankfully the USC run game has barely been working this year, so the DL should be able to focus simply on just hitting the QB and playing with their ears pinned back.

Conclusion

Games between Washington and USC, especially ones where Washington wins, are typically extremely close. This is not the year to put all the pressure on UWs secondary with a true freshman playing safety and some inconsistent CB play. The front seven will need to create pressure without giving up back breaking plays. USC’s receivers are big play machines, and while I ultimately think the defensive game is in the DL’s hands, we’ll need a very disciplined game from Cam Williams too. USC absolutely will target the young freshman as the “weakness” in the secondary, and he’ll have to keep plays in front of him, while also playing aggressive when needed. Trent McDuffie will also gets tons of balls thrown his way and we’ll see what he’s really made of. I don’t think USC will come in trying to establish the run, so the DBs will have to play a clean game and not give up the inevitable 3rd and long because of penalties. We’ll have a lot of young guys out there - Williams, McDuffie, and Kyler Gordon - who will need to play disciplined. Washington has given up pass yards this year, but only 3 passing TDs. Something has to give on Saturday.

Poll

How many points will USC score on Saturday?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    0-7
    (3 votes)
  • 6%
    8-14
    (30 votes)
  • 39%
    15-21
    (170 votes)
  • 38%
    22-28
    (166 votes)
  • 9%
    29-35
    (41 votes)
  • 4%
    35+
    (21 votes)
431 votes total Vote Now