Game Week: USC's O vs. UCLA's D

Nov. 19 -- USC brings some explosive playmakers and a very good quarterback into the Rose Bowl on Saturday...

USC’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

The USC offense, along with the rest of the team, underwent a major overhaul in the offseason with the addition of new head coach Steve Sarkisian. Under previous head coach Lane Kiffin and then interim head coach Ed Orgeron, USC had clung to a ball-control offense designed to work the clock and generate long drives thanks to a dynamic running game. With Sarkisian’s arrival, though, the Trojans moved toward more of the spread-type, up-tempo scheme that Sarkisian had used during his final year at Washington. The personnel so far this year hasn’t allowed USC to go up-tempo as much as it would like, seemingly, but it does appear that Sarkisian would like that sort of offense to be USC’s identity going forward.

This year, though, in a bit of a philosophical inconsistency, USC hasn’t been an up-tempo team. The Trojans’ opener against Fresno State showed off an explosive, up-tempo offense, but since then, the USC scheme has seemingly gotten progressively slower. They don’t typically huddle, so there’s that, but it isn’t an overly quick offense from play to play. It’s mostly a spread scheme, with three or four wide receivers in the formation the vast majority of the time and the quarterback almost always lining up in the shotgun, but they will run some pro-style sets as well. The Trojans run a bit more than they pass, though they’ve trended more toward the pass in the last two games. Generally, it’s a pretty effective offense, with 5.9 yards per play, but more of the big play success has come through the air (where the Trojans have 8.5 yards per pass play) than on the ground (where the Trojans earn just four yards per carry).

The passing offense has been effective in no small part due to the high-level play of redshirt junior quarterback Cody Kessler (6'1, 210). The two-year starter has put together one of the most statistically impressive seasons for a quarterback in college football this year, throwing for nearly 3000 yards, 29 touchdowns, and just three interceptions. As his interception rate would indicate, he typically makes very good decisions with the football, very rarely opting to throw into coverage. He has a good arm — not an absolute cannon, but enough to make most every throw he needs to make. What sets him apart is his excellent decision-making and good pocket presence. He hasn’t shown a propensity to get rattled this season, and he has had to deal with some pressure (22 sacks this year). If there’s a knock on him, it’s that he doesn’t take as many chances downfield as he probably should given the talent USC has in its receiver corps. Sarkisian has said that he’d like Kessler to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities more downfield. He has seemed to try for more throws downfield of late, and has targeted one receiver in particular.

Nelson Agholor.
That receiver’s name is Nelson Agholor (6'1, 190), and he’s the latest in a string of star receivers for USC. Agholor, a junior, came on strong last year as the heir apparent to Marquis Lee, and this year he’s easily one of the top receivers in the country, with a great mixture of explosive athletic ability, route-running, and toughness. He’s really come on of late, with two consecutive 200+ yard games against Washington State and California and a total of 674 yards in the last four games. He’s great with the ball in his hands, with excellent acceleration and the ability to outrun all the but the fastest defensive backs. USC tries to get him the ball in a variety of situations, lining him up in the slot, out wide, and even occasionally coming out of the backfield. True freshman Juju Smith (6'2, 210) has been the next most consistent receiving threat for the Trojans. It wasn’t really a sure thing that he’d even play receiver coming into the year, with some people liking him as a safety, but he’s proven that he can play on offense at a very high level through ten games this year. Smith has good speed, a big body, and very good hands, and he’s already shown off some big play ability even as a freshman. He’s become a trusted option for Kessler already, and the thinking is that he can grow into USC’s next excellent receiver. Redshirt junior George Farmer (6'1, 220), who sat out two games with a hamstring injury, has been back for the last two games, and hasn’t looked too hobbled, putting together two of his better performances of the year. The former five-star was expected to be a future star at USC, but injuries have derailed him to an extent, with an ACL tear a year ago in addition to the hamstring issue. He hasn’t regained all of the elite speed he had prior to that knee injury, but he is still a solid receiver who can blow by some defenders. Sophomore Darreus Rogers (6'1, 215), who somewhat infamously failed to pursue a dropped lateral that led to a Utah fumble return for touchdown, fills out the receiver rotation, though he hasn’t caught a pass in two games. He was expected to be one of the top two receivers on the team this year, but hamstring issues have slowed him down a bit. Obviously, it’s not a deep unit, with only four really trusted receivers, along with redshirt senior tight end Randall Telfer (6'4, 260), but it is a talented group. To help with some of the depth issues, starting true freshman cornerback Adoree Jackson will get a handful of plays per game on offense, where he has shown the ability of a very talented playmaker.

USC will also work the running backs into the passing game quite a bit, with starting redshirt junior running back Javorius “Buck” Allen (6'1, 220) the third-leading receiver on the team. Allen has good hands out of the backfield, which just adds to what is a pretty complete package at running back. He’s an explosive runner, with the potential to take any carry to the endzone. It does seem as though he has gotten worn down as the season has gone on, with two of his least efficient games running the ball coming in the last three. Against California last week, he was unable to get much of anything going, rushing for just 60 yards on 21 carries. As we said, part of it might simply be fatigue — he and sophomore Justin Davis (6'1, 195) are about the extent of the running back rotation. Davis has been solid this year, with good speed, but has had a few issues with fumbles. He returned this year from ankle surgery last season, and hasn’t seemed to be too hobbled.

The offensive line, like UCLA’s last year, has been full of true freshmen all year. Viane Talamaivao (6'3, 330), Damien Mama (6'5, 370), and Toa Lobendahn (6'3, 280) have all spent time starting this year, which should give you some idea of the ugly depth situation at USC. Currently, the line starts two true freshmen (Talamaivao and Lobendahn) along with one redshirt freshman in Khaliel Rodgers (6'3, 315), along with redshirt sophomore right tackle Zach Banner (6'9, 350) and junior Max Tuerk (6'6, 285) at center. Lobendahn has a good deal of talent, and looks like he’s going to be an integral part of USC’s line for years to come, but each of the true freshmen have had their ups and downs. As a whole, though, the line has done a pretty good job protecting Kessler, considering their youth. The issues have been more prevalent with run-blocking, where USC simply hasn’t produced as much as they’d like with a back as talented as Allen. It’s been a case of inconsistency: the line will occasionally open up big enough holes for Allen to have a huge gain, but more often, especially lately, the line has struggled consistently opening up lanes for medium gains. Part of it is the loss of left tackle Chad Wheeler, who tore his ACL last month. His injury forced Lobendahn from his natural guard spot to left tackle, and pushed Rodgers into the starting lineup. Senior Aundrey Walker (6'6, 315) also factors into the rotation, but it appears he is in the doghouse a bit with the new staff, and he’s been questioned on his overall toughness throughout the year. He did play well in spot duty over the last couple of games though.

UCLA’s defense has come on a bit over the last four games after putting together a rough start to the season. Much of the improvement is due to some scheme changes; UCLA spent much of the early part of the season using primarily a passive, coverage-based scheme that wasn’t particularly effective and led to some games that were closer than they should have been — Memphis, in particular — and helped contribute to losses to Oregon and Utah. Since the loss to Oregon, though, the scheme has become progressively more aggressive, with more frequent blitzing in addition to more frequent stunting of the defensive line to put pass rushers in more advantageous situations. UCLA has also elected to puts its corners in press coverage more, which has seemed to play more to the strengths of the individual players. In total, UCLA’s defense appears to be a much better unit than the group that started the season.

Eddie Vanderdoes, Kenny Clark.
What has been consistent for UCLA throughout the year is the play of interior linemen Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes. The two sophomore tackles have been good-to-excellent most of the year, with Clark arguably the best nose tackle in the Pac-12. Vanderdoes, though, has come on especially hard in the last four or five games, and is showing off some of that play-making ability many expected from him coming into college. Both players are excellent run-stuffers, with underrated ability to cause disruption in the backfield.

The edge play has gotten better since the start of the season. UCLA has, more and more, elected to move Owamagbe Odighizuwa around the line, sometimes putting him inside, sometimes lining him up at end, and sometimes standing him up on the outside edge of the offensive tackle. It’s led to him having some of his best performances over the last few games, and finally giving UCLA a credible, consistent pass rush. Deon Hollins has also been used in better ways, with UCLA often stunting him inside to take advantage of his speed against the average interior lineman. It’s interesting — heading into the year, UCLA’s scheme seemed to be predicated on the assumption that UCLA would be able to get a pass rush playing straight up, with Odighizuwa and Hollins rushing from the same spots virtually every play, but once it became apparent that they weren’t able to, the coaching staff adjusted the scheme to be a bit more creative in using them. The addition of Takkarist McKinley, who should be ready to go after hurting his hamstring two weeks ago, has also helped, with McKinley providing some of that dynamic ability on the edge that UCLA has been missing with the losses of Anthony Barr and Cassius Marsh.

Eric Kendricks has been probably the most consistent player on the defense this year, and it’s great to see him finally having a more or less healthy season, after being plagued with a variety of ailments each of the last two years. Kendricks was about the only thing saving the defense from being a bit of a disaster earlier in the year, but over the last few games, he’s been able to step back a bit from being the clean-up crew for every mistake thanks to the majority of the defense playing better. Myles Jack has been more consistent through the last five games than he was through the first five, and looks like he’s starting to grow as a player, playing with more discipline in the scheme, and actually showing off some decent pass rush ability, which wasn’t a strength of his heading into the year.

The secondary has really seen some improvement in the last two games, and a big part of that has been the improved play of cornerback Fabian Moreau. Moreau, like much of the team, came into the year with a good deal of hype and didn’t deliver through the first chunk of the season, looking like a good cover guy with zero ball skills or awareness. Seemingly every time a receiver got a big gain, it was Moreau right there in the frame missing the ball and receiver by inches. Through the last two games, he’s seemed to get more comfortable, and we can’t discount the idea that he’s just more comfortable playing press coverage rather than playing five to ten yards off the line of scrimmage. He’s making more plays on the ball, and just seems like a more confident player than he was earlier in the year. Freshman Jaleel Wadood has been another standout, playing beyond his years on the back line, and not making too many of the mistakes you’d expect from a true freshman playing such a critical role. Tahaan Goodman, the other safety, has made some strides, but regressed a bit against Washington, missing a few tackles and looking a little lost at times.

It’s become a better defense over the last few weeks, as evidenced by good performances against explosive offenses in Arizona and California. Continuing that play going forward will be critical to UCLA’s chances in the next two games and any chances UCLA has in the post-season.

ADVANTAGE: Even

We’ve seen a good deal of improvement from UCLA’s defense through the last few games, and if the unit that we saw against Cal and Arizona shows up on Saturday, the Bruins definitely have a chance to take this side of the matchup. But we can’t simply give it to UCLA because the Bruins have just been too inconsistent throughout the year to know exactly what to expect coming out of a bye week, and the USC offense has been good enough all year to cause UCLA some issues.

The USC offense is a good one; yes, it has some inconsistency from play to play due mostly to offensive line play, but it has some explosive threats the likes of which UCLA hasn’t faced much of this year. Agholor is one of the most explosive receivers in the country, and it’s going to be a real test of Moreau’s improvement to see how he does when matched up against players of Agholor and Smith’s caliber. Allen is one of the better running backs UCLA will have faced this year, and he also has the potential to break big runs at virtually any point.

UCLA, though, really hasn’t been prone to giving up huge plays this year, thanks in large part to playing two deep safeties much of the time. A critical piece against USC is whether or not the Bruins can generate pressure on Kessler. When the USC quarterback has time to sit back in the pocket and look downfield, he can be deadly. Putting him in uncomfortable situations can lead to dump-off throw after dump-off throw, which would be a win for the Bruins.

It’s going to be difficult for UCLA’s to dominate USC to the point where the Trojans don’t have any big plays; likewise, we haven’t seen the overall consistency from USC’s offense against a talented defense to expect that the Trojans will be able to consistently drive on the Bruins. While there’s a chance, given the overall wild nature of the Pac-12 and these two teams this year, that either could dominate this side of the game, we’d have to imagine any real separation will come on the other side.

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