USC’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense
Oh, what a tumultuous season for the Trojans. Once again, USC comes into the UCLA game with an interim coach at the helm, for the second time in three years. The Trojans are led by Clay Helton, though, who has been there now since 2010 in some offensive coaching capacity, so there’s a sense of some continuity, at least, on that side of the ball.
As with most USC offenses in the recent past, the Trojans are built largely on the explosive play. USC averages 6.3 yards per play (21st in the country), and a really excellent 8.7 yards per pass attempt (19th in the country). The thing is, in the last three games, teams have done a much better job of shutting down USC’s explosive passing attack, limiting USC to just 6.6 yards per pass attempt. The rushing offense is inconsistent, averaging 4.6 yards per rush attempt. The offense, in total, is probably a tick better than last year, when USC averaged 2.68 points per drive. This season, the Trojans are up to 2.83 points per drive, which is an elite number in the top 20 in the country.
USC’s offense is led by redshirt senior quarterback Cody Kessler (6’1, 215). Kessler was on some Heisman watch lists at the beginning of the year, and he’s had a very solid year, but not quite a Heisman-caliber campaign. He’s actually performed about as well as he did last year, with virtually identical stats to a year ago. He’s been sacked a little more often, and USC hasn’t thrown the ball quite as often as the Trojans did last season. Kessler generally makes smart decisions with the ball, very rarely throwing into traffic, and his interception rate reflects that (he has just 18 total interceptions in a career 1164 pass attempts). That’s actually a little bit too low for a college quarterback, because it reflects a quarterback who is all too often content to dink and dunk, even when his team desperately needs a quick score. He’s had exceptional playmakers to throw to throughout his USC career, so he has some gaudy yards per pass attempt numbers, but you shouldn’t confuse Kessler with a quarterback who takes a lot of shots downfield. By and large, he has average arm strength and good accuracy, and he makes the vast majority of his throws within ten yards of the line of scrimmage.
Like we said, though, he’s been gifted with some great playmakers, and perhaps none so good as sophomore receiver Juju Smith-Schuster (6’2, 215). There’s an argument to be made that he is one of the top two or three receivers in the entire country. He’s strong, fast, physical, and, for the most part, sure-handed. He’s averaging a bonkers 17.9 yards per catch this year, with ten touchdowns and an average of 110 yards per game. He is by far Kessler’s No. 1 target, and he’s about the one guy that Kessler will throw to even when he’s not perfectly open because Smith-Schuster does such a good job of fighting for balls. Smith-Schuster is reportedly banged up, with a bad hand and a variety of other ailments, but it doesn't appear that any of these ailments have actually affected him on the field.
Beyond Smith-Schuster, who accounts for over a quarter of all USC receptions this year. Kessler spreads the ball around to a variety of targets. Redshirt sophomore Steven Mitchell, Jr. (5’10, 190) missed a couple of games midseason, but has looked fully healthy lately. Mitchell is actually pretty fast, but he hasn’t been able to generate many yards after the catch this year, and has a pretty pedestrian 8.1 yards per reception this season. Sophomore Adoree Jackson (5’11, 185), the do-everything playmaker for the Trojans, works in a ton on offense and actually is the third-leading receiver on the team despite splitting time between defense and offense. Jackson is a playmaker, as his 15.9 yards per catch would indicate. He is very fast and elusive in the open field, though he isn’t particularly strong, so teams can bring him down fairly easily — as long as they can catch him. Junior Darreus Rogers (6’1, 215) is another pretty big-bodied, strong receiver on the outside, and then USC will also work in a combination of redshirt freshman Jalen Greene (6’1, 195), junior De'Quan Hampton (6’4, 220), and freshman tight end Tyler Petite (6’6, 235). Teams should beware of Greene, who has been used on trick plays this year thanks to his background as a quarterback.
The running back depth chart is stacked with talented playmakers as well, but the running game as a whole hasn’t been great. Junior Justin Davis (6’1, 195) and freshman Ronald Jones (6’0, 185) are expected to see the majority of carries on Saturday, with senior running back Tre Madden (6’1, 225) still banged up with a bone bruise on his knee (USC says he’ll play, but it’ll be interesting to see how much he ends up playing). Jones has had an incredible freshman season, rushing for 827 yards on 122 attempts for a phenomenal 6.8 yards per rush attempt. His biggest issue, though, is that he is a very poor blocker and has average hands, so USC is reluctant to put him in on anything besides running downs, which has made him increasingly easy to key on. Davis is more versatile, which is why, despite not being as explosive, he’s still basically splitting carries evenly with Jones. Each of them absolutely has the ability to hit long plays, but there’s been enough inconsistency up front that they’re often forced to make cuts before they even really hit the line of scrimmage. With Madden most likely limited, freshman Dominic Davis (5’10, 175) and freshman Aca'cedric Ware (6’0, 200) will probably both get some snaps, but we’d imagine USC will lean pretty heavily on Davis and Jones in this one.
As we said, though, there’s been some real inconsistency up front, mostly due to injury. USC lost two starting linemen in Max Tuerk and Toa Lobendahn, and the Trojans are now down to a third-string center in redshirt sophomore Khaliel Rodgers (6’3, 305) who, all things considered, hasn’t been awful. Sophomore right guard Viane Talamaivao (6’2, 320) sat out last week’s game against Oregon with a knee injury but he’s expected to be back this week as well. Talamaivao started out the year on the bench, with Lobendahn at right guard, but he’s been thrust into duty since the Notre Dame game. If he can’t go, redshirt freshman Chris Brown (6’5, 295) will start in his place. The tackles have been pretty consistently been mammoth redshirt junior Zach Banner (6’9, 360) at right tackle and redshirt junior Chad Wheeler (6’7, 280) at left tackle. Sophomore left guard Damien Mama (6’4, 355) is the lone USC offensive lineman to start every game this year at the same position. Mama slimmed down quite a bit from a year ago and has had a fairly nice season. The lack of overall consistency up front, though, has led to some issues with both run-blocking and pass protection.
UCLA’s defense is quietly putting together a nice run at the end of the season. Last week, UCLA held Utah to just nine points on three field goals, and the Bruins did a great job of shutting down the Utes in the second half. The previous week, UCLA held Washington State well below its season averages in most categories, even if the Bruins did give up the winning drive all too easily, and the previous week the Bruins shut out Oregon State.
The defensive line has been a big key in this resurgence for the overall defense. Kenneth Clark has been excellent all year, but he’s starting to get real help from Takkarist McKinley, Matt Dickerson, and others up front, which has helped UCLA’s run defense improve over the last few games. Clark should be in contention for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, as he’s been a dominant force inside for the Bruins basically all year.
Linebacker play has still been spotty at times, but Jayon Brown’s emergence as a playmaker has helped to shore up the unit in the absence of Myles Jack and Isaako Savaiinaea. Savaiinaea might be back this week, as he was dressed for last week’s game against Utah, and it’ll be interesting to see if he gets any playing time after sitting out for basically a month.
The secondary was excellent last week against Utah, with both safeties playing better than they have all year in both coverage and run support. UCLA also saw the emergence of freshman converted safety Nathan Meadors, who did a nice job of locking down one side of the field at cornerback. Johnny Johnson could return to action this week at corner, but even if he can, Meadors looked good enough against Utah that we’d imagine we’ll see a ton of him regardless.
This is a pretty good matchup for UCLA’s defensive philosophy. The Bruins are designed to prevent big plays, and they have been very good at that this year (4.8 yards per play allowed, 19th in the country and best in the Pac-12). USC’s offense is designed almost entirely around big plays, especially in the passing game, and that’s just not something that UCLA has had trouble with this year (5.6 yards per pass attempt allowed, fifth in the country).
The offenses that have caused UCLA issues are the ones that can be very efficient and constantly put themselves in 2nd and short and 3rd and short. That really isn’t USC’s offense — that’s not to say they can’t do it, but that hasn’t been the M.O. for the Trojans this year.
All of that said, from a personnel standpoint, USC probably has the most talented playmakers across the board in the conference. Smith-Schuster, Jackson, and Jones are all dynamic athletes who can make big plays out of relatively little. UCLA’s secondary will have to play a very good game to completely limit them, and that’s probably unrealistic given the quality of playmakers USC has.
With the way UCLA’s defensive line has played of late, and the attrition USC has suffered on the offensive line, we’d expect the Bruins to get a decent pass rush with four for a good amount of this game. Clark could feast on the interior linemen for USC, and McKinley’s speed rush could present some serious issues for Banner, especially, on the edge. If UCLA can get pressure on Kessler with four, that’ll free up the secondary to bend-but-don’t-break to its heart’s content, which should limit the explosive playmaking for USC, and give UCLA a really good shot of winning the game.