The injury bug has officially hit. USC has been beset by an onslaught of knicks, dings and most unfortunately tears and breaks.
By the time USC walked off the field with a 42-24 win over Utah, the Trojans season opening starting offensive lineup had been reduced to Cody Kessler, Zach Banner and a banged-up Juju Smith-Schuster. That’s EIGHT starters out, including four of the five starting offensive linemen.
“I think it’s next man up,” USC interim head coach Clay Helton said. “They don’t pay you to make excuses. They pay you to find the answers. One of the things we have done around here is we have played a lot of guys and we’ve practiced a lot of guys. We’ve trained five centers through spring and through training camp. It’s paying off now.”
Luckily, the Trojans built some good depth with their platooning system in the fall and early in the season to help counteract the injuries that have hit hard. Guys like Chuma Edoga and Viane Talamaivao weren’t in the starting lineup to open the season, but they had accumulated a number of snaps before their number was called to start thanks to injuries to USC veterans Max Tuerk (torn ACL against Washington) and Chad Wheeler (concussion symptoms following Notre Dame game). Khaliel Rodgers and Chris Brown were also thrown into the mix against Utah, but both had previous experience to fall back on.
Damien Mama said the line was still able to have success because of their ability to communicate.
“Communication is the biggest thing when the pieces are moving like that. Just being able to work as a tight-knit offensive line group and just helping each other out is probably the biggest thing.”
Despite the M*A*S*H unit, the Trojans offensive line showed a brand of physicality that most expected Utah to enact on USC rather than the other way around.
“I just think some people underestimated how physical we are,” Banner said. “We took that kind of disrespect and kind of just took it in and swallowed it and played our asses off.”
The Trojans ability to run the football, despite essentially playing a second team, proved to be one of the keys to victory and proved that USC’s efforts to build depth had paid off.
Here’s more participation notes from the Utah game to go along with Tuesday's participation charts:
After Jalen Greene and Deontay Burnett were the guys to step up and get more playing time at wide receiver against Notre Dame, it was De’Quan Hampton and Adoree’ Jackson taking the majority of those reps against Utah. Of all the receivers that played, the offense had its highest yards per play when Hampton was on the field. The Trojans averaged 6.4 yards per play with Hampton participating. Read more about how the wide receiver position has been a revolving door lately.
With Tre Madden out for the game, the onus fell to Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II to carry the rock. Both saw about twice as many plays as they have averaged through the first six games while Dominic Davis also saw some plays in the backfield and played a career-high 10 offensive plays.
But it was up to Justin Davis and Jones II to do the heavy lifting. With only two backs heavily in the rotation, the carries were divided more evenly and Justin Davis said it enabled him to get in more of a rhythm.
“I’m always feeling comfortable with a lot of carries. In high school, I got the ball 30 times a game basically,” he said. “With that many carries, it’s really easy to find my rhythm and see which way the linebackers are coming on each play and which way they are going and it really allows me to see the whole game a whole lot more.”
When Jones II is in the game, he’s always a threat to take it the distance with his burst through the line, his ability to cut on a dime and his raw speed. That also makes him a weapon that the other team has to key in on. The Trojans averaged 5.5 yards per play, but for the 24 plays that Jones II was in the game, that number sprouted up to 6.7 yards per play.
Man down, next man up
Justin Davis scored the first points of the game on a sweep to the left side, but it cost the Trojans a big price. On the play, Toa Lobendahn got pushed by a defender behind the play and landed awkwardly. Though he didn’t know it at the time, and played the entire next series, Lobendahn tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. On the final play of the next offensive series, Lobendahn was trying to hold his ground as he was being bull rushed by a defensive tackle and he just crumpled to the ground as his knee couldn’t support him.
“It’s hard. It’s hard losing a great guy like Toa out there. Smart kid and a versatile player,” fellow offensive lineman Damien Mama said. “It’s definitely a loss and something we’ve got to bounce back from. My prayers go to him.”
With Lobendahn — USC’s second center to have a season-ending injury this year — out, the Trojans turned to Khaliel Rodgers. A redshirt sophomore Rodgers started three games last season at guard, but this was his first time making all the calls on the line in a high-pressure situation against a top five team. How did Rodgers perform?
“Unbelievable. Unbelievable in a difficult situation,” Zach Banner said. “Two centers back-to-back. It sucks. Max is my best friend. Toa is a great guy. It sucks as an offensive line to see your guys go down, but you have to step up.
“This is what the depth we were talking about in the offseason with our twos can start at any other school. Look, that’s our third-string center at the beginning of the year. Well second-string, but Toa was a little bit more comfortable, so you can say Khaliel was a third stringer. He stepped the hell up.”
The Trojans also were without Mama in the fourth quarter. He got rolled up on and with a comfortable lead, the coaching staff chose to give him a rest. Chris Brown stepped in admirably during a time when USC was tried to grind away the clock with the run game. Brown produced the Trojans’ top yards per play average at 6.9 ypp.
Iron Man award
There were four offensive players that played all 74 snaps and two defenders (Su’a Cravens, Chris Hawkins) that participated in all 64 defensive plays. But this week’s Iron Man award goes to Zach Banner. Along with Cody Kessler, Viane Talamaivao and Chuma Edoga, Banner played 74 offensive snaps, but he takes the award for most plays thanks to his 12 snaps on special teams. That is one fewer than Damien Mama had last week against Notre Dame when he produced the highest total for an offensive lineman this season.
True fullback dive
Soma Vainuku has seen his offensive reps receive an uptick in recent weeks. After having just five offensive plays, including one kneel down, in the Stanford and Arizona State games, Vainuku has played 17 snaps the last three weeks with eight coming against Utah. USC mixed in the heavy pistol formation with both Vainuku and fellow fullback Jahleel Pinner to each side of Cody Kessler and a running back deep.
But they also went with some straight I-formation looks, including Vainuku getting the ball on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line and leaping over the pile to score a touchdown. A former running back, Vainuku said he saw that there wasn’t much of a hole, so he chose to go with the Walter Payton dive over the pile. He was hit in the air, but got just enough distance to get over the goal line for a score.
While his offensive role increased, there was no dip in his special teams reps. He was still the most used special teams player, participating in 22 of the 32 snaps. Vainuku is used on all special teams except point after attempts, extra point defenses and field goal attempts.
Down the rabbit hole
A place besides the offensive line the Trojans were hit hard by injuries was at the tight end position, which has most often been used as an extension of the offensive line this year. Taylor McNamara dislocated his shoulder early in the second quarter. He gave way for freshman Tyler Petite, who played a career-high 44 plays before he too got injured.
Petite had to leave the game after he got stepped on and left the stadium in a walking boot though x-rays came back negative. That pushed Connor Spears into offensive action for the first time since Arizona State. Spears played the final 10 offensive plays and took the majority of the reps during the week of practice in case McNamara or Petite is not ready to go this weekend at Cal.
A quickie formation breakdown that looks at the formations the Trojans used and the yards per play from each formation. (Again, this is not an in-depth analysis of the formations, but a basic overview):
25 - Two-receiver, tight end, running back, fullback at H-back (5.9 ypp)
16 - Three-wide, tight end, running back (3.4 ypp)
15 - Four-wide (three WR + TE) with running back (6.5 ypp)
7 - Two-receiver, tight end, two backs (5.3 ypp)
2 - One-receiver, tight end, two backs and fullback at H-back (0 yds)
2 - Two-receiver, no tight end, two backs, fullback wide (10 ypp)
2 - No-back, four-wide with tight end (6 ypp)
2 - Two-receiver, no tight ends, three backs (6 ypp)
1 - Five-wide (four WR + TE), no backs (2 yds)
1 - Two-receiver, tight end, running back, fullback wide (-3 yds)
1 - Two-receiver, two tight ends, running back (0 yds)
0 - Four-wide with running back
0 - Three-wide, tight end in backfield, running back
0 - Three-wide, running back, fullback at H-back
0 - Three-wide (two WR + TE) with two backs
0 - Three-wide, two backs
Here’s some defensive participation notes:
Season Iron Man award
Iman Marshall had been far and away the most used Trojan this season until he suffered an abdominal injury in the second half against Washington. Marshall averaged nearly 71 plays per game in the first four contests, but that number has been reeled in since. Marshall played 54 total snaps against Utah, which has been his average over the last three games.
With Biggie Marshall playing fewer snaps the last few games, that has allowed a couple of other players to significantly close the gap on total snaps for the season. Marshall once was far and away the most used player, but now he has played just one snap more than Cody Kessler (445-444) this season and after averaging more than 74 snaps per game the last three times USC has suited up, Su’a Cravens is only six snaps behind Marshall at 439 for the season.
There are only seven players currently that have logged more than 400 plays this season. With Marshall, Kessler and Cravens are Adoree’ Jackson at 437, Cameron Smith with 420, Zach Banner at 414 and Chris Hawkins having played 406 snaps.
Whether it is injuries, purely matchups, Clay Helton getting players he wants on the field or some other factor, we don’t know, but we have seen some radical fluctuations in playing time for some players over the last few weeks.
The most notable this week is Osa Masina dropping to only three defensive snaps — a three-and-out series. Masina played a career-high 36 defensive snaps last week against Notre Dame, but got only one series against the Utes? His playing time has been the inverse of Anthony Sarao, who played five snaps on defense last week and was back to 29 — around where he had averaged prior to the Notre Dame game.
Lamar Dawson also saw his reps increase going from 16 to 19 to 34 the last three weeks.
Extra defensive backs
One of the reasons Lamar Dawson saw more time this week was USC’s reliance on its nickel and dime pass defenses this past week. The Trojans went with their pass rush defensive line that consists of Scott Felix and Porter Gustin playing together on the edges along with Greg Townsend Jr. and another rusher 17 times. Dawson usually joins the group with Cameron Smith coming off and USC either using Su’a Cravens as a second linebacker or having him play against a slot receiver with the potential of bringing in an additional linebacker.
“It gives us a veteran group,” defensive line coach Chris Wilson said of the unit. “It gives us a little more fluid rusher probably at times. That’s what we’ve kind of made their role. They’ve actually bought into that role, coming in on critical situations/special situations and being pass rushers. We’ve really been able to detail that out for them and make that clean.
Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox added to that sentiment:
“It’s getting guys with a little more twitch and can maybe produce some one-on-one pass rush. If it’s a pass situation, there’s going to be stress somewhere whether you’re in coverage and you have to win one-on-one or you’re in pass rush, you have to win one-on-one. Those are the types of guys that you are looking for to be able to affect the game and win a one-on-one.
“I thought we had some good rushes, but we’ve still got room for improvement. But those types of guys…Porter, Scotty, Greg Townsend has given us some. Delvon had some good interior rushes. Kenny Bigelow has flashed at times this year doing that. Rasheem Green, again, he’s another guy that we hope to grow into that role.
“Those types of body types where you’ve got a little more quick twitch, but you may give a little more on the size, but then you go rush the quarterback and try to beat someone one-on-one with a base pass rush or whether it’s with a game.”
Changes in the secondary
Without Adoree Jackson on defense (he played two snaps that went for a combined 40 yards and a touchdown, though neither play was to his side), the defensive backs saw some new roles. Kevon Seymour saw his most defensive snaps since the start of the season and appears to finally be back to 100 percent. Freshman cornerback Isaiah Langley was taken off special teams, but he saw his first defensive action in three games, playing six snaps. Jonathan Lockett went from not playing defense at all last week to playing 34 snaps this week.
At safety, USC was missing John Plattenburg, who was out with illness, and lost Marvell Tell III for the remainder of the regular season with a broken collarbone after he played six total snaps. That meant increased workloads for both Chris Hawkins, who didn’t leave the game and played his most snaps in three games, and Leon McQuay III, who had a strong game and played his most total snaps all season. The injuries also opened up the door for Matt Lopes. He played 17 plays and made two tackles in his first action since the Arizona State game.
Relying on the starters late
The Trojans have decided they are going to rely on Su’a Cravens at all times and Cameron Smith in all non-passing package situations. But this season there have been substitutions throughout for the defensive linemen. That is until late in the game as of recent. In the second half, backups Noah Jefferson and Cody Temple played two snaps each. It was the same in the Notre Dame game as backup defensive linemen played only one snap together.
The one exception to the rule is that Rasheem Green and Kenny Bigelow Jr. have seen some time on the pass-rush specialist units in obvious passing situations, but Delvon Simmons and Antwaun Woods even took some of those snaps for the first time this season in the Utah matchup.
Defensive line coach Chris Wilson said he feels like he’s got the rotations down to where he wants them. After having snap counts in the 80s and 90s last year, Wilson is happy to have those numbers deflated this season. The most defensive snaps a defensive lineman has played was 58 by Greg Townsend Jr. against Stanford. Townsend Jr.’s total snap count has finished between 56 and 64 in each of the last five games.