One of the keys to USC's victory over Arizona State last weekend was the success the Trojan offense had on third down. Through the first three games of the season USC had converted on just 8 of 26 third downs for 30.77%, one of the worst rates in the FBS.
But quarterback Cody Kessler and his offensive counterparts were able to completely flip the script last weekend in Tempe, converting an impressive 10 of 16 third downs for 62.5% (The starters were slightly better, converting 9 of 14 third down attempts for 64.3%).
Making USC's success rate even more impressive was the down and distance required to convert many of those third downs. The combination of an ineffective running game and penalties frequently set the Trojan offense behind schedule. Of the 16 USC third down attempts only five of them were fewer than eight yards while eight of them, half of the attempts, were 10 yards or greater. The Trojans average to go yardage on third down was a full 10 yards.
Despite the long odds converting on long distances, more often than not the Trojans were able to pick up the necessary yardage and keep the chains moving. USC ended the day converting on third downs with 13, 16, 15, 9, 10, 4, 6, 10, 8 and 1 yards to go.
So what changed between game three and game for four the Trojans?
"I just think our execution [was better]," Cody Kessler said after practice. "I think we spent a lot of time this week on it and last week preparing for it. Guys came out and practiced really hard for third downs on Wednesday and we executed.
"I think it just comes down to us making our plays against a couple weeks ago not making our plays. The guys were challenged and bounced back, took it personal and we were really effective on third down."
The USC players certainly made plays on third down, but the coaching staff also did a better job of putting the offense in higher percentage situations.
"It was a really good game plan by the coaching staff and then execution by the players," head coach Steve Sarkisian said. "We anticipated a lot of the man coverage and I thought Clay [Helton] did a good job calling stuff to get guys on crossing routes and different things to get them open, not just having to rely on winning one-on-one battles but utilizing scheme to get guys open."
The 2015 version of the USC offense is centered around big plays, with the Trojans averaging an incredible 7.5 explosive plays (passes or runs of 20 yards or greater) per game.
But until last weekend, those explosive plays were not occurring on the most critical downs. Through the first three games USC had just one explosive play on third down with the other 20 explosive plays occurring on first or second down.
That trend turned completely around against Arizona State, where more than half (5 of 9) of USC's explosive plays were on third down. Those big plays helped USC convert on all of the third and longs and put the Sun Devils away by halftime.
"Ultimately, when it comes down to it, the guys made plays," wide receivers coach Tee Martin said. "There were a few by design and there were a few times where Cody either scrambled for it or broke contain in the pocket and made plays down field with guys doing the scramble drill.
"Either way it goes, that is a down where it is different than the other downs. A lot of the cases you don't have another down after third down and you have to treat it that way. The guys just did a better job of being in the moment and knowing what they had to get to keep the chains moving.
"I like what the guys are doing now, they are on the incline in terms of third down production and we want to continue to help them get in the right positions to make plays on third downs."
The USC offense will get another chance to succeed on third downs Thursday night in the Coliseum against the Washington Huskies.
Stay tuned to USCFootball.com for more bye week updates as the Trojans prepare to notch another conference victory.
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