USC Offensive Scheme
Arizona State coach Todd Graham said this week that he doesn't see any real structural difference with USC's offense this year compared with last year.
ASU fans will likely remember -- if they haven't forced it from memory -- the Sun Devils were stunned in the first half of the game played in Tempe between the two schools a year ago this week, trailing 35-0 at halftime in a game they eventually lost 42-14.
Two weeks after that, USC fired its head coach Steve Sarkisian, who reportedly checked himself into rehab for a substance abuse problem. The Trojans then elevated offensive coordinator Clay Helton to interim head coach. Following a season that ultimately saw USC win the Pac-12 South and finish 8-6 overall, the interim tag was stripped from Helton's job title.
Helton promoted Trojans' passing game coordinator and wide receivers coach Tee Martin into the offensive coordinator role.
A lot of the same players who contributed to USC's deconstruction of the Sun Devils last season are still playing prominent roles with the team. In fact, all four players who scored touchdowns against ASU in the 35-0 first half last year are starters for the 2016 iteration of the Trojans, including star players Adoree Jackson and Juju Smith-Schuster and starting receiver Steven Mitchell, Jr.
Even so, the Trojans are averaging just 22 points per game in their 1-3 (0-2 in the Pac-12) start to this season, last in the Pac-12. They've played a brutally difficult schedule though, getting blown out by Alabama to kick off the season and also losing at Stanford and at Utah. They've also split time between two inexperienced starting quarterbacks. Those two factors are prominent in USC's struggles to start the season, but there have been numerous other factors as well, of course.
This is the week USC should begin to get additional clarity on how much of its problems are attributable to having the nation's toughest schedule. They seem to have settled now on 6-foot-4, 225 pound redshirt freshman Sam Darnold as their quarterback of the future after earlier using fourth-year junior Max Browne.
USC's skill players are very talented -- as good as any the Sun Devils will play all season at running back and wide receiver. ASU should know this well because of what the Trojans did to the Sun Devils last year, when they scored five touchdowns in the first half before coasting the rest of the way.
Of course, the remarkable recent history between the two teams hardly starts there.
Almost exactly three years ago the Sun Devils scored a record number of points on the Trojans in a 62-41 win in Tempe. That resulted in the infamous firing of then-coach Lane Kiffin on the tarmac at Los Angeles International Airport upon USC's return to Los Angeles.
Almost exactly two years ago the Sun Devils beat the Trojans 38-34 at the Coliseum on a near-miraculous 46-yard touchdown pass -- later dubbed the Jael-Mary -- from Mike Bercovici to Jaelen Strong on the game's final play.
So really, in each of the last three years there's been either something extremely dramatic, or extremely unexpected -- or both -- that has happened when the Trojans and Sun Devils have played. As such, there is a certain level of uncertainty associated with this game, particularly as the Trojans are a somewhat surprising 1-3 and the Sun Devils are 4-0 despite breaking in a new offensive coordinator, new quarterback, rebuilt offensive line and a coming off a year in which they were last nationally in passing yards allowed.
But as Graham said, there's a lot that is also pretty static, starting with the Trojans' approach to offensive football. USC uses a spread offense but also incorporates pro-style elements. It's a no huddle offense that uses a lot of tempo and primarily operates out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) shotgun sets.
Of the Trojans’ 59 offensive plays in last week's 31-27 loss to Utah, 47 were run out of the shotgun with an offset back, nine were from a pistol set with the back behind the shotgun quarterback, and three were under center. The previous week against Stanford saw the Trojans play more double tight end formations, and they have three players at the position they can throw the ball to. But these players are more receiving threats than blockers, overall, and the overwhelming tendency is to play just one tight end at a time, often flexing the player or aligning him as a h-back.
The Trojans are usually going to have three wide receivers on the field, and they'll do it in every configuration possible, including trips to the boundary side. Everything starts though with the run game, particularly with Darnold's inexperience, and his mobility. USC can run zone read with Darnold because he's relatively mobile at his size. Its primary run plays are quite similar to the Sun Devils. The Trojans are going to run inside and outside zone and power, almost always with left guard Damien Mama pulling from left to right. Sometimes they'll do it right to left with right guard Viane Talamaivao.
USC's offensive line has taken a lot of criticism to start the season and understandably so. There were four false starts in the first-half alone at Utah before the Trojans went to a silent count. ASU had to do the same thing at Utah in a recent season after a similar problem with hearing at the line of scrimmage. But that's hardly been the full extent of the Trojans' problems. They've had injuries that have knocked out multiple players, particularly at center, and have been challenged by speed rushes at tackles, especially against ginormous Zach Banner on the right side (Banner is questionable for this game with an injury).
Running backs Justin Davis and Ronald Jones are both very good. Jones is more athletic and explosive, while Davis is more skilled and well-rounded. They had a combined 78 yards last season against the Sun Devils on 17 carries, with a long of 22 yards. But there is a game-breaking component to the Trojans' run games, particularly when a back gets clean through the first level against an ASU overload blitz.
ASU -- and more specifically sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr -- is going to have to contend with one of the nation's top receivers for the second week in a row. Last week it was Cal's Chad Hansen, who had 10 catches for 110 yards, almost all of which came in the first-half. Orr moved from his normal boundary side position to play opposite Hansen, and had success, particularly in the second half when he manned Hansen up in almost a box-and-one approach to football defense.
In this game Orr will move back to the boundary side to contend with Smith-Schuester, who typically plays the 'X' position into the boundary. ASU could elect to try to bracket Smith-Schuester, but Mitchell and Darreus Rogers have each caught 15-plus balls already this season, so doing so will be perilous.
USC will protect with six and seven to try to take big shots down the field to Smith-Schuester, but has been prone to giving up coverage sacks to defenders who have continued to play after initially being blocked. ASU had just two sacks last year against the Trojans, but there should be more opportunities than that in this game.
USC offensive players
QB Sam Darnold (No. 14) -- The next in a seeming revolving door of USC quarterbacks from Orange County, California, Darnold is young and learning but with very impressive tools. He's completed 32 of 48 passes in this, his redshirt freshman season, with two touchdown throws and one interception. He's also run for 53 yards and one touchdown, and is pretty mobile for his 6-foot-4, 225 pound frame. Darnold can make all the throws in the USC offense and really works hard to try to get through progressions and use the full field. He's put some balls in jeopardy, especially when he's misidentified zone coverage as man coverage. He's also made the job of his offensive line tougher because he'll hold the ball a bit in the pocket trying to find an open target.
RB Justin Davis (No. 22) and RB Ronald Jones (No. 25) -- For the purposes of ASU fans in this game, there's not a big discernible difference between Davis and Jones. They're both 6-foot-1 and within five or so pounds of one another at 200 and 195 pounds, respectively. Davis is more skilled and a better third-down player because he's a better max protector and better receiver out of the backfield. Jones has a little more home run potential as an inside zone runner and gets on the second-level at lightning speed when the designed hole is clean. Davis is easily capable of breaking off big runs though and is a little less hit-or-miss with his runs.
WR Juju Smith-Schuster (No. 9) -- A junior with very good size at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, Smith Schuster has more than 2,000 career receiving yards and 17 touchdowns. Last year against the Sun Devils he caught five passes for 103 yards and two touchdowns. He's as good of a deep ball threat as ASU will play this year among players who also possess good size, but most of his targets still come on short-to-intermediate routes and he's a chain-mover. Smith-Schuster almost always is aligned on the perimeter and most typically on the boundary. Sometimes USC will move him to the field-side position.
WR Darreus Rogers (No. 1) -- A 6-foot-1, 215 pound senior, Rogers' career arc has been as a slow developer. He grayshirted in 2012, had 22 catches in 2013, 21 catches in 2014 and became a regular starter in 2015 when he had 28 catches for 289 yards and three touchdowns. This season he's far out-pacing anything he's done previously, with 18 catches in four games for 211 yards, but he has yet to find pay dirt. Rogers is more on the possession side of the spectrum on the wide side of the field.
WR Steven Mitchell, Jr. (No. 7) -- At 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds, Mitchell is most typically going to align in the slot. He's a leverage receiver who tends to make plays underneath the defense and has some quickness to be elusive after the catch. He's a player who can often come open out of bunch formations or working against nickel defenders inside in man coverage, and can be used in the screen game.
TE Tyler Petite (No. 82) -- A receiving tight end more than a blocker, Petite is 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds as a sophomore. That size is more indicative of type of role he has. He'll be flexed out or attached and they'll use him to block some on their zone action on the perimeter but Petite's primary function is to run the seam and be able to stress defenses. His 18.0 yards-per-catch average is tops on the team and makes his function clear. He has just six catches but can come up with big ones at important times.
USC Offensive Line: This is a big group with an average weight of 315-plus pounds, and as much height as you're going to typically see, particularly at tackle where senior left tackle Chad Wheeler is 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds and senior right tackle Zach Banner is 6-foot-9 and 360 pounds. They're a bit susceptible to speed on the edge, particularly at right tackle. But Banner was hurt against Utah and is questionable. He would likely be replaced by senior Jordan Simmons, a 6-foot-4 player who has primarily been a guard. Junior Nico Falah has stepped into a starting role in recent weeks at center after a severe season ending knee injury to Toa Lobendahn. Junior guards Mama and Talamaivao have a lot of experience with Mama looking like a potential all-league performer.
ASU defense against USC offense
This will be a very interesting chess match with the Sun Devils being increasingly more difficult to decipher defensively. Under defensive coordinator Keith Patterson we've seen more varying coverage types and greater selectiveness with blitz pressures.
ASU gave up a lot of big plays and huge yardage to Cal and Texas Tech and their elite quarterbacks, but so will most opponents those teams face this season. The Sun Devils actually were not bad through large stretches of each game, particularly in the second half. They learned, adapted and got better as the game unfolded.
But they may need to do better from the jump against the Trojans considering what happened in last year's game, which was over by halftime, and that was in Tempe. Turnovers could tell the story in this one, with dueling inexperienced quarterbacks. ASU will likely vary its coverages between man across, man underneath with zone over the top, and two level zones, and then for good measure, play Smith-Schuester in the football equivalent of a box-and-one defense with zone everywhere except on the Trojans' top receiver.
Ultimately the Sun Devils are going to try to jam up the run, including using targeted early down blitzes, and then try to trick Darnold's eyes on third downs with tougher coverages he'll have to decipher on the fly. If they can get to him with a good secondary pass rush, or speed on the edge at right tackle with some overload pressures, that will really help their cause as well.
When the Trojans have gotten big plays against ASU in recent years, it's been boundary-side receiver floods that involve three or four receivers including running backs and/or tight ends, often including a play-action component in the backfield. They've used their running backs in the receiving game for big plays, particularly across the formation. Look for them to try to accomplish those things again in this game.
The key players for ASU in this game will ultimately prove to be Orr, junior WILL D.J. Calhoun, senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes and junior Bandit J'Marcus Rhodes. If those four are assignment sound, ASU stands a great chance of winning.
USC defensive scheme
Other than their blowout at the hands of Alabama to start the season, the Trojans have done reasonably okay on defense considering the gauntlet-like level of competition other than against Utah State. They did give up 31 points and 30 first downs at Utah last week, but the 4.0 yards-per-carry and 5.6 yards-per-play weren't too bad. The first half was good. But the Utes were able to score on three 75-plus yard touchdown drives in the second half and that was a difficult way for USC to lose. Afterward, players blamed fatigue and a lack of depth.
In first-year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast the Trojans have an extremely experienced coach for a 48-year-old. Pendergast was the Arizona Cardinals defensive coordinator from 2004-08 and the coordinator at Cal in 2010-12, where he had some impressive results. The Golden Bears led the Pac-12 in total defense, passing defense and fewest first downs allowed.
Pendergast was the USC coordinator in 2013 before going to the San Francisco 49ers to coach linebackers for a couple years and then back to USC in 2016. The Trojans had a good defense in 2013, arguably the best in the Pac-12. They ranked No. 1 in several statistical categories including total defense and red zone defense, and were third in scoring defense at 21.5 points per game.
Pendergast's defensive approach has continued to evolve through his career and been very adaptive to personnel. This year with the Trojans he's tended to use two different base looks. The first uses three down defensive linemen with two outside linebackers who essentially align and play like defensive ends a majority of the time, except out of a two-point stance. This is the so-called 5-2 defense that a lot of people talk about with Pendergast. It really functions more like a 4-3 though because one of the edge players is more of a true linebacker size and someone who will align at a few yards depth sometimes.
The second defensive grouping that Pendergast has utilized with the Trojans this year on base downs has actually been a nickel look. This features two defensive tackles, a 2-point end, 6-foot-5, 260 pound sophomore Porter Gustin, and a smaller hybrid outside linebacker. It then has two inside linebackers, and five defensive backs including a field-side defensive back who operates somewhat like USC's Spur.
What's really important to know about the Trojans on defense is that they're now playing a one-gap style -- their previous coordinator Justin Wilcox used more two-gap defense -- so up front they're trying to be gap penetrators, not read and react linemen. Behind that, they play primarily a middle-field-closed style of defense with a single high safety -- often they show two-man but usually rotate one player down immediately before the snap -- and a lot of Cover 3 and Cover 1 as their most common shells. ASU also plays a lot of these coverages and is also a one-gap style defense, so this is all going to be similar.
At an earlier point in his career, Pendergast's 3-4 earned a reputation for being progressive with his approach to zone blitzing. He tended to be pretty aggressive and would pack seven or eight players in the box and try to keep quarterbacks from knowing which players would be pressuring and which would be dropping into coverage.
At USC, he's not dialed up a lot of blitzes, but when the Trojans do pressure, they have some effective methods. Often they'll bring both inside linebackers while dropping one of their outside linebackers. They'll do this across all gap configurations and they'll even combine these pressures with stunts. They run some of it well, but fleetingly, and they need to do it more because the Trojans have a glaring lack of speed and pass rush capability in their front.
This week, several Trojans including star sophomore inside linebacker Cameron Smith said the team will blitz more moving forward. It was an interesting statement, either an attempt at gamesmenship or a potential tip of the hand. But the Trojans might have to do it because when they've sat back and been dictated to things haven't gone as well as the probably would have hoped.
A major factor in USC's challenge on defense is that the team simply isn't as talented nor as deep as it has been in the past. Pendergast even admitted this week that the depth isn't better than 2013, when the Trojans were on sanctions and only had around 70 scholarship players.
Smith is an absolute star, and as good of an inside linebacker as the league's probably seen since Scooby Wright at Arizona. At cornerback, Adoree Jackson is a quality player and probably the Trojans' second-best defender. Fifth-year senior Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, a Utah transfer, is also one of the team's best players on defense as a physical nose tackle. Gustin is a solid player as an end, but not as much of a difference maker as might be expected for a five star.
Overall, the talent isn't as great as might be expected for how many four and five star recruits are on the defense. There's no speed rush component; the inside linebacker spot next to Smith is just average; junior safety Chris Hawkins lost his starting job after Stanford; starting cornerback Iman Marshall and Rasheem Green are solid players, but not yet playing nearly as well as five-star recruits should be expected to; the safety position overall has been somewhat mediocre with its play, and been susceptible to key read errors that have resulted in some big plays allowed.
USC defensive players
LB Cameron Smith (No. 35) -- A truly great inside linebacker on base downs, Smith is reminiscent of former Arizona star linebacker Scooby Wright in terms of how he mirrors the action of outside run plays and navigates his way through traffic with elite feel, traffic avoidance, and block shedding. He has an uncanny ability to read the play and set himself into position to make the tackle. He's very strong at 6-foot-2 and 245 pounds for a true sophomore. Smith is limited on third downs and comes off the field at times. He's most susceptible in the passing game, particularly with how USC plays underneath zone coverage.
LB/DE Porter Gustin (No. 45) -- A 6-foot-5, 260 pound sophomore who plays from a 2-point stance but is essentially a defensive end. He's a force player whose job is to make the quarterback hand the ball off on read option, be a physical anchor with length and disruptiveness, and to try to use that to chase down plays on backside pursuit. He's not a primary pass rush threat but can bull his way in when he's free to. Gustin isn't a change of direction or great range player and isn't someone who is going to be playing the pass, as even zone coverage in the flat is not in his wheelhouse.
LB Michael Hutchings (No. 19) -- The starting inside linebacker next to Smith, Hutchings is a little undersized at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds. He's possibly the team's most important blitzer on the interior. He's just okay against the run given the size limitation, as he sometimes gets stuck on blocks by reaching linemen. At his size one would think he'd be a better coverage 'backer than he is, but Hutchings' situational feel in zone coverage is mediocre and opponents have been able to run underneath receivers near him and hit on completions that are crossing, spot routes and check downs.
LB/DE Uchenna Nwosu (No. 42) -- A 6-foot-2, 235 pound junior, Nwosu plays as a hybrid end/outside linebacker. Often he'll be right next to the down defensive end and be a force defender. Sometimes the Trojans will back him off a little bit and use him as an awareness zone player; or they'll drop him when they pressure and let him try to fit into a pocket where he can rob the quarterback on hots. Nwosu
CB Adoree Jackson (No. 2) -- Arguably the nation's top overall return specialist, Jackson will often mirror an opponent's best outside receiver but he never plays in the slot. That means he won't get matched up on ASU senior Tim White but the Trojans could elect to play him opposite freshman N'Keal Harry throughout the game. Jackson has very good technique both in press and bump man techniques and also as a bailing zone defender. He has elite ball skills and could easily play at the NFL level as a wide receiver instead of a cornerback. He's a little undersized at 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds and physical players who can box him out and be a presence at the ball's arrival are his biggest challenge. He'll occasionally play on offense and when he does, USC wants to get him the ball. He had three big catches against the Sun Devils last year, the longest of which was an 80 yard touchdown.
CB Iman Marshall (No. 8) -- A 6-foot-1, 200 pound sophomore, Marshall was one of the most highly regarded overall prospects in his high school class a couple years ago. He's yet to play like his ranking though and there's legitimate questions as to whether he'll be a cornerback or a safety if he's going to play beyond college. Marshall has relied a lot on his natural tools and physicality. He plays the position too much with his hands and is uncomfortable playing in phase without contact. Handling speed in space can be a challenge at times for Marshall and if he's getting matched against good route runners who are also athletes with some strength like ASU's Cameron Smith and Jalen Harvey he'll have to be at his best technically to play to his expectations.
S Marvell Tell (No. 7) -- The Trojans have had some coverage busts on the back end and the 6-foot-3, 190 pound Tell is developing as he goes. He's got a lot of potential with a great combination of size and range for the position with some versatility. But he's also had his eyes get too big at times rather than focusing on his key reads and doing his job and that's something that just takes a lot of reps to improve upon, typically.
S Leon McQuay (No. 22) -- A 6-foot-1 195 senior, McQuay rarely leaves the field because he's either the team's hybrid player in its base nickel, or its other safety with Tell in its heavier front. McQuay is a good, veteran coverage safety with fluidity and an ability to re-direct. He's been relied upon even more in the last week with the benching of Hawkins.
DL Stevie Tu'ikolovatu (No. 96) -- Utah must be loaded at defensive tackle with an embarrassment of riches because Tu'ikolovatu is a physical and hard-playing 1-technique nose tackle who looks to have a career beyond this, his fifth year senior year. The former Utes player and rare in-division conference transfer, Tu'ikolovatu is very good when he wins the hand placement battle with the center or guard. He can be physically jarring at the point of attack and destabilize plays. When he doesn't get his hands well located though, he can at times be unbalanced. He's not going to make a lot of backfield plays or bring down the quarterback, but he is important in allowing others to make plays.
DL Rasheem Green (No. 94) -- A former five-star who picked USC over the Sun Devils and others, Green is a lanky 6-foot-5 who plays 3 technique tackle and sometimes bumps over to a 5 technique field end alignment when the Trojans go to three down linemen. His length can be disrupting and he's still growing into his frame from a strength standpoint. Ultimately he should be a great player but it's still very much a work in progress.
ASU offense against USC defense
Offensive balance and the run game are essential to ASU's success in this game. It's not a coincidence that in the second half of games this season the Sun Devils have established a rhythm primarily through running the ball right at its opponents. USC isn't like a typical opponent in this regard, particularly with Cameron Smith cleaning things up at the second level.
But if this turns into a game in which sophomore Manny Wilkins has to throw a lot early and throughout, it's not a good recipe for success, particularly with how effective Jackson can be at one cornerback position. The Trojans are going to put eight men in the box and challenge ASU to beat them on the perimeter. That means winning on the edge and getting blockers out on wider runs, and also a healthy dose of perimeter screens.
Once again, it's going to be crucial for offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey to make the game plan work for Wilkins. In this game, that likely includes a heavy dose of Tim White, and involve a fair amount of throws that target the middle third of the defense underneath, where there are soft spots created by how the Trojans bring five or more players to the line of scrimmage inside. There should also be plenty of perimeter screens and some rub concepts. It'll be interesting to see if ASU can offer a big play component to match the Trojans and whether that'll be necessary.
USC won't pressure Wilkins with four rushers. It'll take blitzing to do it, and Wilkins will have to know where to deliver the ball and why when this happens, and know those things pre-snap, not adjusting on the fly.
USC special teams
-- Adore Jackson is one of the best return specialists in the country on punt and kickoff and ASU's going to have to be at its best. That might mean junior Matt Haack angling punts to the boundary or trying to increase his hang time a bit even at the sacrifice of some yardage. Senior Zane Gonzalez might be the best kickoff specialist in the country and he'll have to be on his game in this regard.
This is once again a very difficult game to forecast, particularly in light of how random the games played between these teams have been in recent years and how many new and moving pieces there are with ASU and USC: new coordinators, quarterbacks, etc. In Tempe I'd pick the Sun Devils but with Wilkins going on the road in the Pac-12 for the first time and some of the slow starts we've seen from the Sun Devils, coupled with a better big play capability from the Trojans and ASU's still-too-frequent tendency to give up big plays on breakdowns defensively, I'll take the Trojans in a close one, 31-27.