USC Preview: USC O V. UCLA D

The USC team UCLA faces Saturday is a vastly different one than started the season, with an offense that has greatly improved since the first five games of the season...

This has been probably one of the more tumultuous and interesting seasons for USC in recent memory. First, the Trojans lost 10-7 to Washington State in their Pac-12 opener, which was just as horrible of a performance as it sounds. Then, two weeks later, USC was blown out by Arizona State, giving up 62 points. The bloodbath against the Sun Devils was enough to necessitate Lane Kiffin's firing, which may or may not have taken place immediately after Kiffin was pulled off the team bus at LAX on the return trip home. Defensive line coach Ed Orgeron was given the interim head coaching job, and his marching orders were likely to avoid any further embarrassments and keep the team intact for the next head coach.

Of course, instead of merely treading water, Orgeron has turned USC into one of the hottest teams in the country, currently riding a five game winning streak and having won six of the last seven. In the process, Orgeron has elevated his stature in the eyes of influential boosters and alumni, who may wish to see him permanently ensconced as the head coach.

What has largely driven the turnaround, aside from the pure culture change of removing the at-times toxic Kiffin, has been improvement on the offensive side of the ball. Through the early going of the season, USC was in the midst of a self-inflicted quarterback controversy, with Kiffin reluctant to name a starter between redshirt sophomore Max Wittek (6'4, 235) and redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler (6'1, 215). Then, with seemingly no confidence in either quarterback, Kiffin, who had a great deal of influence on play calling, spent the first
Quarterback Cody Kessler.
five games operating almost completely out of a shell. Through the first five games, USC ran on an extraordinary 62% of all offensive plays, and the majority of the passes were of the bubble screen/swing/screen variety. Not surprisingly, the Trojans stagnated against the two of the three good defenses they faced, and against ASU, when they gained 500+ yards, gained a significant portion of those yards in the 4th quarter, when the game was no longer in doubt.

Over the last seven games, with Kiffin removed from the picture, offensive coordinator Clay Helton has been much more dynamic, with the offense actually looking a bit more like the pro-style USC offenses of old. Compared to the 62% run based offense under Kiffin, USC has run the ball at a 52% clip over the last seven games, and has mixed up the passing attack to generate more downfield throws. Quarterback Cody Kessler will never be confused with Peyton Manning, but Helton has done a nice job of putting him in position to succeed, whether by rolling him out of the pocket or by giving him easy opportunities on quick hitches and other quick passing plays. Despite running less, play action has been much more effective over the last seven games, likely due to a wider variety of play action looks.

Kessler has been a big part of the surge for USC's offense. Through the first five games, he had thrown six touchdowns against four interceptions, to go along with a 61% completion rate. Over the last seven, he's been much more effective, completing almost 66% of his passes, to go along with nine touchdowns and two interceptions. As we said above, much of the improvement is due to improved play calling by Helton now that Kiffin is gone, but you have to give Kessler some credit for improving his decision making. He doesn't have an exceptional arm, but he's improved his accuracy as the season has gone on, and has shown the ability to make tough throws into narrow windows. Helton will use him both under center and out of the shotgun depending on what they're trying to accomplish.

What's particularly astounding for Kessler is that he has improved so much despite not having junior All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee (6'0, 195) for much of the last seven games. Lee has been battling a variety of injuries since training camp and has been in and out of the lineup throughout the year. He was a significant contributor against Stanford, recording several key catches throughout the game, but then sat out last week against Colorado with a bruised shin. There is some speculation that Orgeron sat Lee last week to get him some added rest in order to face UCLA this weekend. The expectation is that, although Lee is listed as questionable, he will be ready to go for the game. In Lee's absence, sophomore receiver Nelson Agholor (6'0, 185) has stepped up as Kessler's primary target. Agholor is another dynamic receiver threat for the Trojans, who have seemingly had a steady string of them for the last dozen years or so. Agholor can stretch the field deep on the rare occasion that Kessler winds up for a deep bomb, but is also well-suited to shorter throws where he can use his athleticism to make guys miss.

Those two players alone account for a whopping 43% of USC's receptions. Redshirt junior tight ends Xavier Grimble (6'5, 250) and Randall Telfer (6'4, 250) are probably the next biggest threats as pure pass catchers, but really, when the Trojans aren't throwing to Lee or Agholor, they're generally trying to get the ball to one of their talented running backs, either through the air or on the ground. Redshirt sophomore running back Javorius Allen, or "Buck", (6'1, 215) began the season buried on the depth chart, but has emerged through the last four games as one of USC's best offensive weapons. He's averaging 6.5 yards per carry, but has also been a significant factor on screen passes and other looks out of the backfield, having 15 receptions, with 12 in the last four games. He has a good combination of power and speed, and has shown some home run capability. Redshirt sophomore running back Tre Madden (6'1, 220) made his return from injury against Stanford, but got just one carry against Colorado and doesn't appear to be all the way back from his hamstring troubles. Freshman Ty Isaac (6'3, 225) saw an increased load last week as well, but mostly in junk time. Senior Silas Redd (5'10, 200) has also battled a series of injuries, and is uncertain for the weekend.

One player who has seen his role massively increase under the new regime, particularly in recent weeks, is redshirt sophomore fullback Soma Vainuku (6'0, 265). After just two catches for 16 yards through the first five games, Helton has turned Vainuku into a weapon out of the backfield. He has managed gained 110 yards rushing/receiving over the last seven games on 12 touches, and has scored twice. Last week, he was actually used as a ball carrier, and had a 52 yard run to show for it.

The Trojans haven't necessarily been excellent along the offensive line, but USC has been able to scheme around some of their deficiencies up front by using quick passing and screens. The Trojans have been beset by injuries all season, with the lone bit of stability coming from junior center Marcus Martin (6'3, 310), who was, himself, a guard last season. Starting redshirt senior tackle Kevin Graf (6'6, 295) injured his ankle against Utah and missed several games, but has since returned. In Graf's absence, sophomore Max Tuerk (6'6, 285) got some time at right tackle, but has since moved back to left guard. Redshirt freshman Chad Wheeler (6'7, 275) has spent most of his time at left tackle, and junior Aundray Walker (6'6, 300), since being inserted into the lineup, has maintained his spot at right guard, after spending most of last season at tackle. Orgeron has spent much of the season trying to find a combination that works, and the Trojans' hope is that the current iteration is good enough to hold up against UCLA's front seven.

UCLA's defense, after looking like a potentially elite unit through the middle chunk of the season, has faltered a bit in recent weeks, with Arizona, Washington, and Arizona State all being able to move the ball well at times against the Bruins. Last week, against the Sun Devils, UCLA gave up 35 first half points, although only 28 were really given up by the defense. Disconcertingly, the Bruins did a very poor job against the zone read, which they'd had a good deal of experience defending this season.

Ishmael Adams.
Part of the issue may have been that freshman phenom linebacker Myles Jack didn't play a single snap of defense, with the coaches opting to use him as a starting running back. Without his speed and versatility on the field, UCLA's defense loses much of what makes it special. The linebackers in general seemed to feel his absence, with Jordan Zumwalt and Anthony Barr both playing below their usual level.

This weekend, the secondary is possibly going to be a question mark, with Fabian Moreau having stayed out of the majority of Saturday's game. Ishmael Adams helped take up the slack for the injured Moreau, though, doing everything for the Bruins: defending passes, stopping the run, and also returning kicks. Randall Goforth and Anthony Jefferson, who both play safety, also filled in at cornerback at times, and Goforth, in particular, looked like a natural corner.

UCLA's defensive line, a week after playing mostly nickel against Arizona State, should be back in full force this weekend against the pro-style sets of USC. That'll mean decidedly more of nose tackles Kenny Clark and Seali'I Epenesa, in addition to more Eddie Vanderdoes and Ellis McCarthy.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

There are certainly some elements that point to this being a good matchup for the Bruins. First, UCLA's defensive coaches are very well-versed in defending against pro-style offenses, having spent so long in the NFL. Between Lou Spanos and Jim Mora, the brains of the UCLA defensive staff could probably write a treatise on how to defend against an Ace formation. Second, playing against the pro-style gets more of UCLA's defensive linemen on the field than have been able to play against the spread looks from ASU, Washington, and Arizona. At this point of the season, with Vanderdoes, Clark, and McCarthy having matured considerably since the beginning of the year, that's a very good thing for UCLA.

The only similar offense UCLA has faced this year was Stanford, and the Bruins did a mostly excellent job of shutting down the Cardinal in the first half, before wearing down under the crushing weight of their own inert offense. While many could point to the lack of Myles Jack against Arizona State as a crucial loss for that game, against USC, we'd have to anticipate that he will play considerably on defense once again. Even without Jack, it'd be much easier to use an Aaron Wallace or Kenny Orjioke in his stead without much dropoff because UCLA wouldn't need to play as much nickel. So, even if UCLA opts for Jack primarily on offense again, you could see the move having much less of a negative effect on the defense. We'd have to expect, though, that Jack will play defense, at least somewhat, which will help to limit Cody Kessler's ability to move the pocket.

Against USC, we'd anticipate that UCLA will blitz quite a bit more than it has this year, both against the run and the pass. Kessler is not much of a running threat, and we'd guess that UCLA will look to disrupt his timing as much as possible by getting pressure on him. Stanford was able to stuff USC's rushing attack to a large extent throughout the game, and we'd have to anticipate UCLA will be focused on putting together a similar performance. The Bruins' speed at linebacker will likely be an important factor, particularly with Kendricks and Zumwalt, who'll be needed to deal with the heavy screen element that USC will likely use to counter the pressure. There, too, Jack will be key.

If UCLA isn't able to generate pressure, and Kessler is given time to throw, you have to worry about UCLA's depleted secondary and its ability to cover Agholor and Lee. They would be a difficult matchup for even a fully healthy secondary. In Anthony Barr's final regular season game as a Bruin, it's going to be key for him to go out with one of his best games.

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