In case you weren’t aware, USC’s quarterback is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, and he is incredible. On the season he’s thrown for 2,646 yards (9.6 YPA), 25 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, while completing 68% of his passes. If you haven’t watched any USC games, he is the ultimate playmaker at the quarterback position and has an almost Patrick Mahomes element to his game where he can make any throw, even when off balance and under pressure. He has truly elite arm talent combined with exceptional athleticism.
As an opposing fan, it’s almost frustrating how often he can pull off the spectacular. He is such an adept scrambler, he sometimes spends what seems like an eternity running around trying to make a play, which he does constantly. At over 3 seconds, he has one of the highest time to throw numbers in the country. He’s got the speed and moves to freeze a defense, and also isn’t afraid to lower this shoulder and run over a defender if the pass isn’t there.
While he’s only thrown 4 picks, and lost 2 fumbles, he has nearly as many turnover worthy plays (15) as big time throws (17), per PFF. He’s known to have an absolute dud of a game sometimes (Notre Dame this year), but his importance to the USC offense - and team overall - can’t be understated. He’s responsible for 130 of USC’s first downs this season, #3 in the country. For comparison, Michael Penix Jr. is #1 with 132 first downs.
Overshadowed by the spectacular Williams is the 5-9, 210 pound junior RB MarShawn Lloyd, who is averaging 7.7 yards per carry on the season (766 total rushing yards, 8 TDs). He doesn’t have elite burst, but is fast enough, and a smooth runner with a nice blend of physicality and vision. He averages over 4 yards after contact per attempt. He can find the crease and has the footwork to make great cut back runs. Backing him up is the Stanford transfer RB Austin Jones, who is not quite the athlete that Lloyd is but a solid and efficient running back. The 5-10, 210 pound senior has had the best years of career at USC and this season he’s carried 50 times for 258 yards (5.2 YPC) and 5 touchdowns.
At receiver, the big three are Tahj Washington, Brenden Rice, and Mario Williams. Washington leads the team in receptions (35) and yards (711), plus 5 touchdowns. He’s a fluid and explosive player with great hands, who mostly operates out of the slot. Brendan Rice is the one receiver with size, at 6-3 and 210 pounds (as opposed to the 5-10 Washington and 5-9 Williams). He’s leading the team in receiving touchdowns with 9. He mostly lines up outside and his average depth of target is over 13 yards - not quite the 15+ yards of Husky receivers Ja’Lynn Polk and Rome Odunze, but he can get upfield and make tough contested catches. Lastly, there is Mario Williams and his 24 catches for 259 yards and a touchdown. Like Washington, he’s mostly in the slot and shows good quickness and hands over the middle and down the seam, though his role has decreased compared to last year.
The spectacular freshman WR Zachariah Branch deserves a mention as well. He is a multipurpose threat similar to the the Chief’s Tyreek Hill. He’s been relatively quiet the past few games, but many consider him the most exciting freshman USC has had since Reggie Bush.
Along the offensive line, things are hit or miss. Caleb Williams has been pressured over 100 times and sacked 24 times.
The USC offense is Head Coach Lincoln Riley’s baby. Much of the offensive concepts are born out of the air raid, but they are relatively balanced running 45% of the time. For Riley, it’s all about stressing the defense with routes at all three levels - short, intermediate, and deep. A common play is the Y-cross, which this article can explain better than I ever could. Simply, it sends most of the receivers flowing across the field in one direction, and is very hard to defend when there’s speed at receiver, which USC has.
Running the ball, a key play is the RPO - Williams puts the ball in his running back’s chest, and if the outside linebacker crashes down, he’ll pull it and throw a quick slant underneath. If the linebacker stays home, Williams will give the ball to the running back. Or he’ll keep it himself, and he has the speed and athleticism to beat any defender.
Another staple of this offense, and brought straight from Oklahoma, is the famed GT counter. In simple terms, it’s a power run in which the offense will take a quick step in one direction (the counter), before running in the other direction, behind a convoy of a pulling guard and tackle. But, it’s usually dressed up; it’s often combined with RPO elements so Williams is able to pull the ball and run. Taking advantage of a fast and diminutive receiving corps, a receiver will sometimes go in motion on a flare route, designed to give speedy players the ball in their hands running forward, creating another passing option if the middle of the field is covered.
Between the talent at QB and the scheme, this is an elite offense that averages more than 7 yards per play, and 45 points per game. They can attack defenses in numerous ways, and with Williams, any play - even a fumble - can become a touchdown. While still quite good at receiver, they aren’t quite at same level as last year, which probably contributes to Caleb Williams excessive scrambling while trying to find an open man.
The Trojans can certainly run the ball, but this offense goes as Caleb Williams goes. Against Notre Dame he threw 3 picks and didn’t reach 200 yards passing for the first time all season, and not surprisingly USC lost the game scoring just 20 points. The Irish used their excellent defensive line to force Williams into bad throws, constantly trying to make something happen. If he has a real weakness, it’s that - always looking for the big play, and struggling more under pressure this year than in previous years.
The Washington defense will need to make Williams pay for his constant scrambling (i.e. getting sacks), or be able to cover downfield for long periods and not let him make plays with his arm. Maybe this is finally the game we’ve been waiting for from pass rushers Bralen Trice and ZTF. If the Husky defense is to have any success, it will have to be.