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.
USC’s Defense vs. UCLA’s Offense
Given the talent that USC has, it’s a little stunning that the defense hasn’t been better over the last handful of years. This year, USC’s defense is once again fairly mediocre, giving up a lot of explosive plays, especially through the passing game.
It’s a demonstrably worse defense than last year, which stands to reason with the loss of Leonard Williams, USC’s best defensive lineman from a season ago. Last year, USC gave up 1.85 points per drive, and this year the Trojans are giving up considerably more, at 2.07 points per drive. USC gives up 5.5 yards per play (70th in the country) after giving up 5.1 a year ago. The rushing defense is a little better, giving up 3.8 yards per rush attempt (32nd in the country), but the passing defense is significantly worse, giving up 7.7 yards per pass attempt (95th in the country) after giving up 6.5 a year ago. Teams are hitting big plays on USC in the passing game, which was obvious last week when Vernon Adams averaged a honkers 16.3 yards per pass attempt against the Trojan secondary.
But, as with the offense, the lack of production shouldn’t make anyone forget that this is a talented defense that’s capable of big plays and nice performances. It’s just that, like so many other aspects of this team, the defense is so wildly inconsistent that it’s hard to count on the talent showing out game to game.
There’s no getting around the fact that the defensive line for USC just hasn’t been the same without Williams — though it has been getting better over the last five games. USC runs a 3-4(ish) system, like basically everyone in the Pac-12. Redshirt senior nose tackle Antwaun Woods (6’1, 320) mans the middle, and he does a credible enough job holding up double teams and giving his linebackers lanes to attack the quarterback. Redshirt senior Delvon Simmons (6’5, 295) is the primary three-technique, and he’s basically been the playmaker for the defensive line, recording 7.5 tackles for loss (4 sacks), but that’s a far cry from Williams-esque production. The neat thing for the Trojans is that, through the first six games of the season, he had just two tackles for loss and one sack, so he has come on quite a bit over the last five games. At defensive end, redshirt senior Greg Townsend (6’3, 275) will start, and he’s been up and down this season. At the rush end spot, USC will start redshirt junior Scott Felix (6’2, 240), who’s been effective on the edge this year. In addition to the starters, freshman defensive tackle Noah Jefferson (6’6, 330), redshirt senior defensive end Claude Pelon (6’4, 300), freshman defensive end Rasheem Green (6’5, 285), and freshman rush end Porter Gustin (6’5, 250) will all work into the rotation a fair amount.
USC’s linebacker corps contains its best player, but also its biggest reason for concern, due to the season-ending injuries to starting inside linebacker Cameron Smith and key contributor Lamar Dawson. Junior outside linebacker Su'a Cravens (6’1, 225) is USC’s answer to Myles Jack, in terms of his impact on all aspects of the defense. He can cover, rush the passer, and play stout against the run, and he probably brings the most consistent effort of any USC player on either side of the ball. Cravens leads the team in tackles for loss (13.5) and sacks (5.5), while also recording two interceptions, five passes defended, and being the second-leading tackler on the team. He’ll often play up on the line of scrimmage, where he’s a mismatch for basically anyone trying to block him.
As we said, though, the issue for USC is inside. Smith had surprised a lot of people by seizing a starting inside linebacker job in his first year in the program, but he actually excelled in that role, and even had three interceptions (even if they all cam in the same game). He was the leading tackler on the team, and had been fairly stout in the middle. Without Smith and Dawson, USC has leaned more heavily on sophomore inside linebacker Olajuwon Tucker (6’3, 235) and redshirt senior weak side linebacker Anthony Sarao (6’0, 235). Sarao was already starting over Dawson, though Dawson was playing considerably, so that one isn’t such a big deal, but Tucker is not the same kind of player as Smith, and has less experience playing a Mike role. It’s hard to judge based on one game against an offense as explosive as Oregon, but there were some breakdowns in the running game and passing game where Oregon got some big chunks of yardage at the expense of poor plays in the linebacker corps. Freshman linebacker Osa Masina (6’4, 245) was supposed to be one of the guys who stepped up in Dawson/Smith’s absence, but he tweaked his hamstring and is doubtful for this one.
The secondary has had some issues this year. Freshman cornerback Iman Marshall (6’2, 200) has struggled, especially in recent weeks, and had a really poor game against Oregon last week. He is starting now over Kevon Seymour, who had a nagging knee injury earlier in the year, and was supplanted by Marshall. Sophomore Adoree Jackson (5’11, 185) typically plays the other corner spot, unless he’s needed more on offense, and he has gotten a little bit more exposed this season for a lack of overall physicality. We can’t help but think that it would be better for Jackson to focus his attention on one side of the ball or the other, since it doesn’t appear that he has developed his craft a ton on either side in the offseason. At safety, redshirt sophomore Chris Hawkins (5’11, 190) and sophomore John Plattenburg (5’11, 185) will most likely start, and the safeties have had their issues as well, sometimes taking poor angles at ball carriers and allowing bigger plays than they should. Plattenburg is starting over junior Leon McQuay (6’1, 190) who is very unlikely to play against the Bruins. On the other hand, freshman safety Marvell Tell (6’2, 190), who’s been dinged up, should make his return this week.
UCLA’s offense is in a state of a little bit of flux, with the Bruins having to mix and match offensive linemen in the last couple of games. Against Utah last week, left tackle Conor McDermott suffered a knee injury, and he’s doubtful to play this week. That’ll force Kolton Miller into the starting lineup, most likely at left tackle. In addition to that, Alex Redmond is still nursing a banged up hand, and if he’s ineffective, UCLA could be forced to play true freshman Fred Ulu-Perry at guard, who has not been particularly effective this season in limited duty.
Josh Rosen faced a really tough challenge last week against Utah, and for the most part, he responded well. He took a ton of hits, though, and that seemed to wear on him as the game went on. He has been excellent over the last half of the season, and seems to be making great decisions in the passing game (over 200 throws without an interception). With offensive line issues up front, he’ll need to take what he can from that experience against the Utes.
The running game, led by Paul Perkins, has ground out some tough yards in recent weeks. Perkins isn’t having quite the same season as a year ago (he’s averaging 5.7 yards per carry this year after 6.3 a year ago), but watching some of the plays he’s making, it’s still really impressive to watch him work. Without Brett Hundley as another running option, and without great blocking up front in recent weeks, Perkins has still been very productive, and has developed into a player who can grind out tough yards when needed.
Jordan Payton set a UCLA receiving record last week, and it’s hard to recall a UCLA receiver who’s been so freakishly consistent for four straight year. Payton has been a dependable option since his true freshman year, displaying good hands, great route-running, and solid blocking on the edge. He’s been very productive over the last four weeks, with 34 catches for 462 yards. If he actually gets three more games as a Bruin, he could pretty reasonably end up with over 90 catches, which would blow away J.J. Stokes’ single-season record of 82. He also has a shot at Danny Farmer’s career receiving yards record (he’s 415 yards away, so he’d have to have a pretty big final three games). It has been a very nice college career for Payton.
We’ll give the advantage to UCLA here, but it’s not an overwhelming one. With UCLA’s issues on the offensive line, there’s a chance that USC’s defensive line could really come to play and cause some consistent disruption in the backfield, which could keep the UCLA offense off schedule and turn this game into a surprising defensive struggle.
We just don’t see USC playing with that level of consistency — again, it’s not something the Trojans have shown this year. USC has allowed a lot of explosive plays this year, and UCLA has a fairly explosive offense.
We expect UCLA to throw to run in this one, working USC much like the Bruins did last year, with a lot of receiver screens directed at USC’s cornerbacks. The Trojans did a poor job dealing with that last year, with Adoree Jackson really struggling to get off blocks, and we’d expect UCLA to attack that matchup again. That sort of strategy also mitigates the issues UCLA currently has up front.
USC’s big chance in this one is to force disruptive plays. Cravens should be very active on the edge, and given Rosen’s propensity for getting his passes tipped at the line of scrimmage this season, we wouldn’t be completely stunned if Cravens managed a big play or two if he can anticipate one of the receiver screens coming out of Rosen’s hand.
UCLA has generally game-planned better for USC than, really, any other game, and we’d expect Noel Mazzone and company to once again have a very good game plan in place to handle the USC defense.
USC’s punter, redshirt senior Kris Albarado (5’10, 195) is probably better than Matt Mengel, with a 41.4 yard average with just three touchbacks in 49 kicks. The kicking situation is significantly worse — redshirt junior Alex Wood (5’10, 175) has been very poor on kickoffs this year, with just 10 touchbacks in 65 kicks (to compare, Ka'imi Fairbairn has 55 in 75 kicks). Wood has made 10 of 14 field goals, with missed from 46, 36, 36, and 34, so he’s not automatic from really anywhere.
USC does have a dynamic returner in Jackson. He’s scored one punt return for a touchdown, last week against Oregon, and averaged 24 yards per kickoff return, which is solid. He is prone to some bad decisions in the return game, though, often taking the ball out of the end zone when he shouldn’t, or fielding punts when he should let them go.
UCLA’s return game has been an adventure recently as well, but with Devin Fuller returned to action, the Bruins should start getting some solid decisions at punt returner again. Fuller has been very good returning punts this year, and his decision-making has been top-notch. At kickoff returner, Roosevelt Davis took some reps on Saturday against Utah and looked pretty good. We’ll be interested to see if he gets a long look there this Saturday as well.
UCLA has won this game by double-digits for three straight years. Combined, UCLA has beaten the Trojans by 49 points over the last three years, and the last two contests haven’t really been competitive at all in the second half. UCLA has been the tougher team, and has approached this game every year with probably the best mental focus and emotional energy that’s it has showed under Jim Mora.
So, there’s that.
The other aspect of this game is this: it really doesn’t look like a great matchup for USC. The Trojans are an explosive offense going against a defense that has been very good (near-elite) at denying explosive plays, and USC hasn’t been able to consistently grind out long drives. On the other side, USC has been disruptive on defense, but has given up explosive pass plays, especially in recent weeks, and UCLA has an offense that can certainly make some explosive plays.
Now, USC has talent, and there’s some possibility that Jackson, Smith, and Jones will all come to play in a big way and create some big plays against UCLA’s defense. There’s also a chance that USC’s defense will take advantage of some uncertainty on UCLA’s offensive line and disrupt Josh Rosen into some serious mistakes in the passing game that could lead USC to victory.
But we have to play the odds here, and it’s hard to envision USC suddenly becoming the consistent team it needs to be to beat UCLA. UCLA will likely attack USC’s corners on the edge and then, as the game wears on, attack the middle of USC’s defense with the rushing attack. USC will probably try to find one-on-one match ups for Smith, but, again, UCLA has been elite at preventing explosive pass plays this year.
Jim Mora should notch his fourth win in the Rivalry this weekend, and set up a rematch with Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game that would, all things considered, be a really nice time to get a first win against the Cardinal.