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Taking a look at USC offensive efficiency against Notre Dame

This USC offense has put up some big numbers this season, but is a lack of consistency holding the Trojans back?

Through six games, the Trojans have the No. 5 ranked scoring offense in the Pac-12, coming in at 38.3 points per game. Senior quarterback Cody Kessler is third in the conference with 303 passing yards per game, behind only Washington State's Luke Falk and California's Jared Goff.

Considering the fact that USC has scored at least 30 points in every contest except Washington, most of the finger pointing for the disappointing 3-3 record has been reserved for the defensive side of the ball.

But even with the high point totals, there have been real issues with the lack of consistency for this USC offense. It is an offense that relies heavily on huge plays and one that has no clear identity at this point.

Looking at the game against Notre Dame, the Trojans scored 31 points with an impressive 590 yards of offense. The problem is, many of those yards came on just a handful of plays and the majority of the offensive snaps were ineffective.

USC ran the ball 30 times for 150 yards and a respectable 5.0 yard per carry average. But if you remove that one Ronald Jones 65-yard run, USC's average yards per rush drops all the way to 2.9.

The go-to efficiency measure for college football is what FootballOutsiders.com calls "Success Rate." It is defined as a play which gains 50% of needed yards on first down, 70-percent of needed yards on second down, or 100-percent of needed yards on third or fourth down (with adjustments for "garbage time" and a few  other factors). In general, a running back with an above 50-percent Success Rate is considered very consistent while below 40-percent is very inconsistent.

Out of the 30 runs by the Trojan tailbacks, only 10 were deemed successful by the above definition - giving USC a 33-percent run success rate against the Fighting Irish. The Trojans had a couple of big plays, but for the most part it was an inefficient day running the football.

On Tuesday USCFootball.com's Dan Weber asked interim head coach Clay Helton specifically about the lack of consistency in the USC running game against Notre Dame.  

"Credit Notre Dame for loading the box, anytime you load the box like they do you hope you look up and you have a bunch of yards passing," Helton said. "When you look up and you're throwing for over 400 yards and you have 590 yards of total offense on a team with a pretty darn good defense, giving up slightly over 300 yards per game, and you put more points on them than anybody has, obviously you're doing some good things."

The problem is, USC wasn't very efficient throwing the football either. The Trojans threw 47 passes against the Fighting Irish for a total of 440 yards and 9.4 yards per attempt. Cody Kessler's three passes of 37, 83 and 28 yards and Jalen Greene's 75-yard pass accounted for more than half of the passing yards.  That is four pass plays out of 47 accounting for 223 of the 440 yards. Removing those four plays, USC's pass per attempt yardage drops from 9.4 to just over 5 yards.

Of those 47 total passes, only 18 were considered successful by the Football Outsiders definition, giving USC a 38.3-percent success rate on pass attempts. Again, USC put together some huge plays in the passing game, but overall the Trojans were generally inefficient throwing the football.

On the surface, 590 yards of offense on 77 plays and a 7.7 yards per play average looks very impressive against a tough Notre Dame defense. But when you consider that the Trojans gained 320 yards on six of those plays, the remaining 71 plays gained just 270 yards for a 3.8 yard per play average.

USC's four touchdown scoring drives lasted eight, one, two and five plays. The Trojans had five other non-scoring drives that lasted four plays or less. That is feast or famine, inefficient offensive production, score on the big play or punt.

Efficiency wise, the "best" drive USC had came in the third quarter with the Trojans up 31-24. Even though the drive ended in a punt, USC was able to run the ball consistently and move the chains going 40 yards on 11 plays taking 5:37 off of the clock.  But in the three drives after that possession, USC ran a total of eight plays, punting once and throwing a pair of interceptions.

Explosive plays are important and can be a huge factor in winning games, but against good teams like Stanford and Notre Dame explosive plays alone often are not enough. And if a team hits an explosive play drought, like USC did against Washington, the results can be devastating.

To beat the better teams in the Pac-12, USC needs to tighten the reigns and be much more efficient on offense. The individual playmakers are there and they will get their yards, but it is just as important to be able to line up and grind out three ,four or five first downs in a row.

Stay tuned to USCFootball.com for more analysis as the Trojans try to break their two-game losing streak with a win over No. 3 Utah Saturday in the Coliseum.

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Ryan Abraham has been the publisher of USCFootball.com since 1996. You can follow him on Twitter at @InsideTroy or email him at ryan@uscfootball.com.


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