How to Beat USC, the "1000-Pound Gorilla"

After watching USC's defense decisively dismantle Auburn last Saturday, we wondered what kind of team would it take to beat them? We looked at one of the last teams to defeat the Trojans and analyzed how they did it.

USC dominated a lot of teams last year, but they had a dogfight against Washington State (WSU) in an overtime loss in Pullman. Even the Trojans' tremendous run defense broke down several times, as WSU spread the field and used a lot of receivers.

BYU coaches have undoubtedly studied the WSU-USC game to find chinks in the Trojan armor. The Trojan defensive line is a "1000-pound gorilla," and is going to have a lot of offensive coordinators up late at night.

All comparisons in the WSU-USC game are not applicable for this weekend's game because the game was in Pullman and WSU was the co-champion of the PAC-10. As a point of reference, the same WSU team toyed with Nevada last year, with a 31-7 victory in Pullman. Nevada was fresh off this loss when BYU came to town last year, smug after home wins over Syracuse and Hawaii.

The main reason to evaluate WSU's win over USC is to see what kind of team gave USC's defense problems last year, overcoming a quarterback who won the Heisman with a stable of great receivers. Whether BYU can summon that kind of near-perfect game, even though the Trojans are a different team and lost their entire starting backfield, is a long shot.

BYU is supposed to lose, but anything can happen if they keep the game close and competitive. More importantly, what does BYU's offense and defense need to do to create problems for USC's dominating run defense?


It's hard to know what to extrapolate from USC's shutout of Auburn, other than the Trojans have a suffocating run defense, even against a very strong running team. USC whipped Auburn where it counted most – on the scoreboard 23-0. The Trojans' domination was reflected in several stats:

(1) Auburn rushed 36 times for 43 yards, for only 1.2 yards per carry! The Trojans' defensive line manhandled Auburn's offensive line.

(2) USC was not a rushing juggernaut, with 36 rushes for 123 yards, or 3.6 yards per carry. That differential, however, was good enough for the win combined with efficient passing by quarterback Matt Leinart.

(3) To make matters worse, Auburn handed over three "gifts" to USC, with two fumbles and one interception. USC, on the other hand, did not turn it over so the turnover margin was +3 in USC's favor. Over the last two years, the Trojans have led the NCAA in turnover margin. They are the most opportunistic team in college football.

(4) Third down efficiency favored USC, but not by much. Auburn succeeded in moving the chains three times out of 15 attempts, or 20% of the time. The Trojans succeeded in four out of 15 attempts, or 27% of the time (Carson Palmer's team last year succeeded in 3rd down attempts 40% of the time, so the Trojan offense was adequate for this kind of "grind-it-out" game).

(5) Auburn was held to 11 first downs for the game; USC had 16 first downs.

(6) USC tended to generate points almost half of the time it had the ball. The Trojans scored on five occasions, with two touchdowns and three field goals. Specifically, USC scored five times and punted seven times, or five out of 12 series of downs (41%) when it had the ball. Auburn, meanwhile, punted 10 times and turned the ball over three times.

(7) USC's passing game was adequate (very good outing for a first-time QB) with 17 completions out of 30 attempts (and no INTs), each completion netting 6.2 yards per attempt. Auburn had 12 completions for 26 attempts and 121 total yards (and one INT), or 3.8 yards gained per attempt. Since the Trojans did not need to pay much attention to the passing of the Auburn quarterback, they loaded up the middle against the run. The rest is history.

(8) USC came out ahead -- 32:15 to 28:45 -- in time of possession.

When you compare the supposed might of Auburn's vaunted rushing attack to USC's take-no-prisoner's rushing defense, the matchup overwhelmed Auburn, strength against strength. On the other hand, USC could both pass and run with efficiency, resulting in a 23-0 score.


How did WSU beat USC last year, and play in the Rose Bowl instead of USC? In one sentence, WSU was not one-dimensional. They could pass and run downfield and defend well.

Here is how the WSU wide receivers played and scored against USC last year: Riley 5-54; Bush 4-50 (1 TD, from the 3 yard line); Darling 4-37 (1 TD, from the 2 yard line); Henderson 3-20; Bieneman 2-50; Smith 2-28; Moore 1-53; Green 1-17 (also had a TD on a 75-yard run); and Lunde 1-6.

In addition, Washington State's kicker nailed field goals from 48, 35 and 35 yards out. Against the tough USC defense, it is critical to score on field goals when the opportunity arises. The WSU FG kicker was the No. 2 scorer in the PAC-10, at 8.7 points per game – compared to USC's WR Williams, who was a little further down the list, at 6.5 points per game.

WSU spread the ball to nine different receivers, which means USC's defense had to account for a lot more firepower than Auburn. Similarly, BYU needs to spread out their personnel to cover the Cougars multiple offensive sets.

USC's defense was vulnerable on two occasions to the big play. Note the 53 yard passing strike to Moore (his only catch) and the 75 touchdown run by Green.

Palmer spread the ball around to eight receivers against WSU, but only Williams, Colbert and a little-used running back Hancock return. USC's first string tight end has been hobbled by back injury, but his replacement, Byrd, had a nice game against Auburn.

USC had no field goals against WSU last year and missed one PAT. They had three field goals against Auburn. The Trojan's vanilla offense, so far, under Matt Leinart did not spread the ball around to many receivers. That could change against BYU. Both Williams and Colbert are proven deep threats. What isn't proven is whether Leinart can hit them deep. Chow did not need Leinart to go long against Auburn, so this part of his game is unknown.

Even without Palmer in the line-up, Williams had eight catches for 104 yards and one touchdown against Auburn.


One of the keys to the WSU offense was that its running backs were able to run the ball with 29 attempts for 201 yards, including the 75-yard run by Green, for a 5.2 yard average. Without the 75-yard run, the other 28 attempts averaged 4.4 yards per carry.

WSU led the PAC-10 in net yards gained per play attempted, at 6.2 yards per play. USC was second in the conference at 5.8 yards per play. WSU, however, had a proficient vertical passing game. BYU has yet to show it has one this year.

WSU's quarterback, Gesser, was No. 5 in the PAC-10 conference in yards passing per game, at 262 yards per game. USC's Palmer was No. 2 at 303 yards per play. Both were efficient in turning yards into points, with few interceptions. Palmer led the conference in TD/INT ratio, with 33 TDs to 10 INTs, or a 3.3 ratio. Gesser was No. 2 in the same ratio, with 28 TDs to 13 INTs, or about a 2.0 ratio. In the WSU-USC game, both Palmer and Gesser each had two touchdowns and one interception.


These two PAC-10 co-champions led the league in giving up fewest yards against the run last year. USC gave up 83 yards rushing per game and WSU gave up 87 yards per game. However, with WSU's spread-it-out passing offense with vertical completions, they also gained 201 yards rushing against USC's defense. The reverse did not happen with USC's passing offense. WSU surrendered only 72 yards on 32 carries from USC's running backs, or only 2.2 yards per carry.

It seems like USC's run defense is ideal for smash-mouth, run-oriented teams that do not have great passing games. When forced to spread out and defend horizontally and vertically, a team like WSU succeeded where others failed.

If BYU's passing offense performs like Auburn's, the Cougars will be roadkill.


Like USC, WSU posted a strong margin of victory over most opponents.

* WSU's average output last season was 33 points per game, giving up 22 points per game, for a scoring margin of 11 points.

* USC's average output last year was 35 points per game, giving up only 18 points per game, for a scoring margin of 17 points. Teams that could not run AND pass against USC were dead meat.

However, by allowing WSU to gain an 200-plus yards on the ground (when they normally only gave up 83 yards), and by allowing WSU three field goals while not having any of their own, the shootout in Pullman went to WSU in overtime.

We could debate whether WSU's passing game came first, or its running game, in a "chicken and egg" discussion with no clear answer. In preparing the game plan, WSU figured out how to do both and put USC on its heels.


In an important playoff game against a physical opponent, former Laker coach Pat Riley wrote a comment on the blackboard:

"No boards; no rings."

The USC defensive line was dominant against Auburn, plugging holes or knifing through to disrupt things when they needed to. BYU's offensive line is still young and may be schooled come Saturday.

Looking at the WSU game stats from last year, it is more apparent that BYU needs to produce 4.0 yards per carry, even before getting some big runs. The question is how? Auburn mustered only 1.2 yards per carry.

WSU spread the field against USC and ran effectively, but their offensive line was experienced. If BYU spreads the field against USC's defense, that means our offensive line must play the game of their lives to give Berry a little more time. From a coaching standpoint, Berry needs to be given plays that will allow quick delivery – until the Cougars can bust a few plays and loosen up the defensive pressure.

No blocking, no chance. If BYU's blocking dissolves, turnovers will mount and that will end all hope of an upset.

The USC game will be an "acid test" of Bronco's 3-3-5 defense. Leinart was very poised for a rookie quarterback with good accuracy last week. Norm Chow has to be pleased with his discipline, poise and focus. He seemed to know exactly what he wanted on each play, and then went after it.

If BYU's 3-3-5 defense can "take away" Williams from most plays, confuse Leinart into some incompletions and interceptions, play tough against the Trojan scat backs and generate turnovers, it could be a contest.

Maybe it's good that BYU kicker Matt Payne got the worst game of his career out of his system. He will be needed on Saturday, combined with Bronco's defense, to make field position our friend, not our enemy.

No matter what game plan the coaches come up with, they must deal first with the USC "1000-pound gorilla." The game plan starts with blocking and play calling.

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