Breaking down the USC offense

Coming off a devastating 35-point loss at home to UCLA last week, Arizona State will look to rebound against a USC team that won its second straight Pac-12 game with a 35-10 victory over Oregon State. In some regards, the opposing offensive scheme the Sun Devils will encounter in the L.A. Coliseum should look quite familiar to one last Thursday in Tempe.

Under new head coach Steve Sarkisian, Southern California’s offense can be summed up in one word: Efficient. Quarterback Cody Kessler has yet to throw an interception, and ranks among the top 25 nationally in completion percentage (72%) as well as passing efficiency.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Kessler has yet to throw an interception to go along with his high completion rate, is the fact that Sarkisian loves to throw high percentage passes often times six or less yards downfield to get his playmakers in space.

Sounds familiar, right?

“They are very similar to UCLA schematically on offense,” Arizona State defensive coordinator Keith Patterson said. “In the sense that they have a simplistic run game and are very sound in what they do. It’s not an intermediate passing game, it’s a lot of hitches and screens so again you have got to tackle and make plays in space. And you have got to be sound vertically and not give them one-play drives.”

This isn’t the West Coast offense of years' past that we’ve seen at USC, but the concepts are alike in the new spread look the Trojans show, according to Patterson. Yet, Sarkisian’s scheme isn’t what’s going to kill another team; it’s the athletes that will.

“The biggest thing with them is the depth at running back,” Patterson said. “They put one in and take one out and there’s no fall off what so ever. Obviously that’s where it starts with their team. And then it’s the same thing at wide receiver; the depth at wide out, they are all great athletes and play makers.”

Devils’ starting corner Lloyd Carrington said the first thing that jumped out to him on tape was how fast the USC receivers are.

“They’ve got a lot of explosive receivers who can beat you vertically but they also throw a lot of different running formations at you that they’ve had some success with,” Carrington said. “It’s going to be a balanced scheme defensively for us.”

One of the Trojans’ best athletes in 2014 is starting tailback Javorius “Buck” Allen, who has had 100 yards either rushing or receiving in every contest this season. A back that is just as dangerous in the passing game as he is when running between the tackles.

“He runs that thing well and is a very quick guy,” ASU spur linebacker Marcus Ball said of Allen. “That’s something that we are going to have to take care of because he is a guy that can hurt you.”

Much like UCLA, USC does a great job of finding creative ways to get the ball in its playmakers hands with open space to work with. Here’s an example of that in last week’s matchup against Oregon State:

The Trojans come out in “12” personnel – one back, two tight ends and two receivers – a grouping they love to run the ball out of. OSU has eight in the box, both corners manned up on the outside receivers and a linebacker on Allen.

At the snap, Allen sprints out to the flat with the linebacker in chase. The slot receiver, Juju Smith begins to run what looks like a crossing pattern, but actually winds up “picking” off the linebacker chasing Allen, the true design of the play.

Smith takes two defenders out of the play including the corner manned up on him, leaving Allen open in the flat with a lot of green ahead of him.

USC is also using motion as misdirection quite often in 2014. An example of which took place in the same game against the Beavers.

Here the Trojans are in “11” personnel in the red zone. Kessler calls for JuJu Smith to go into motion to the field side in a swing pattern.

The motion diverts the eyes of the defense to the field side, and USC has three players running routes to the boundary side, including running back Justin Davis. Perhaps most importantly, the OSU corner shifts his focus to the slot receiver and converges on his route, instead of accounting for Davis running a wheel out of the backfield.

The wide-open Davis catches the ball with space to work, and just has to make one guy miss to score. The player right at the first down marker is the corner responsible for that side of the field, and thanks to the motion, he made the mistake of coming down to help the slot. That’s just one of the things USC does to get the defense out of position.

That motioning is something Carrington mentioned, so you can bet Graham has recognized this and has a game plan for it.

“It’s all about recognizing each formation and knowing what you’re going to get,” Carrington said.

A problem for the Devils so far this year – which showed against UCLA last week – is tackling runners in space. The Bruins had five plays of 80-plus yards last Thursday, and a good chunk of Brett Hundley’s 355 yards passing coming after the catch thanks to poor tackling by ASU.

“That’s been a major emphasis this week with our guys,” Patterson said. “Once the ball gets out in space on the perimeter, you have got to get it down.”

But it’s not just in space where the Devils will have to make plays this week. The Trojans attack in many different ways, and while their running scheme isn’t exotic, they still force you to respect it. USC likes to pull its guards often in the running game for a power look out of the shotgun, and will continue to pound it until you prove you can stop it.

“Once they get into a rhythm running the ball, boy they just spoon-feed it,” Patterson said. “You have got to get them into negative yardage plays in the early downs and not let them play ahead of the chains. If they are knocking four or five yards off on first down it’s going to be tough.”

Luckily for ASU, a dynamic present last week against UCLA won’t be there this week against USC: a mobile quarterback. As Patterson put it, sometimes the worst thing you can do against a mobile quarterback is cover everybody so he can run. That’s what makes it so tough to defend teams such as UCLA and Oregon.

While Kessler does a decent job of extending plays, he’s not going to hurt a defense with his legs.

“You don’t really have to worry about the scramble game and we know the certain amount of time that we have to cover,” Carrington said. “But yeah with him (Kessler) not being mobile it will be a lot easier for us.”

Ball echoed that statement.

“I’m not saying he’s one-dimensional, but obviously he can’t run the ball like Hundley can,” Ball said. “It does make it easier for us to have a guy that’s close to being one-dimensional. It will definitely make a change to the game plan from last week.”

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