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The USC Trojans are now 13th in the College Football Playoff rankings, which is the highest they’ve ever been. The ranking comes off the impressive defeat of now the now No. 6 Washington Huskies. While this was a surprise to some, it was not to those that live on the P, though. The surprising aspect was the relative ease at which USC beat Washington. The team has made incredible progress both on the field and in the eyes of advanced stats. However, one thing has remained steady as the season has progressed:
USC’s lack of explosiveness.
Ask just about anyone (or any Pac-12 coach, like Todd Graham and Kyle Whittingham), and they’ll tell you how much talent USC has. Fair or not, having this much talent at USC’s disposal usually leads to expectations from fans thinking that they need to blow everyone out or score touchdowns on every single play. However USC has won this year by being extremely efficient and having the 15th best Success Rate in college football. Success Rate is defined as the idea that an offense gains 50 percent of the necessary yardage on 1st down, 70 percent on 2nd down and 100 percent on 3rd and fourth down. (One other note: you’ll see me use efficiency and Success Rate interchangeably, they are the same.)
Interestingly enough, looking at USC’s defensive Success Rate, which is the ability to prevent the offense doing what is defined above, is ranked exactly the same: 15th in the nation. Typically, one can draw conclusions from this at this point in the season. Clay Helton and company have made it a point to suffocate opponents on the defensive side, and rely on its playmakers to get in space or Sarm Darnold to make the right decision by taking what the defense is giving them on offense.
Where USC is weak is generating explosive plays on offense and even preventing those explosive plays on defense. USC ranks 70th in explosiveness (IsoPPP) on the offensive side of the ball and 84th on the defensive side of the ball. Ronald Jones II has torn up defenses recently, so what about big running plays? The rushing attack is the one facet that is generating the most big plays, ranking at 46th. However the flip side of that is how awful the pass game is in generating big plays at 99th. What’s interesting is that Sam Darnold’s yards-per-attempt (YPA) has come down in the games since my first piece on his very positive effect on the USC offense.
Looking at both the lack of explosive plays generated from the passing game and the fact that his YPA has come down since, three conclusions can be drawn: First, despite his innate ability to avoid sacks, Darnold is still probably getting pressured in the pocket, so he doesn’t have time to take deep shots. Second, the receivers aren’t really able to separate downfield even if their route is commanding them to do so. Third, the design of the offense isn’t really about generating huge plays but more so gaining chunks of yards at a time and focusing on efficiency. Not all of these are necessarily true -- and hell, I could be wrong -- but offensive numbers support these ideas. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it’s just something this USC team isn’t particularly good at, but when they’re 15th in the country in Success Rate (being efficient), that’s perfectly okay.
Let’s look at defense. Clancy Pendergast’s unit ranks 84th preventing explosiveness. I’m sure some games and plays specifically come to mind, whether it’s Alabama’s Damien Harris hitting that huge 73-yard run, or the John Ross play where he shook Adoree’ Jackson out of his shoes. The defense is susceptible to lapses that lead to big plays against opposing offenses. Thankfully this hasn’t happened quite as much, and it’s fair to say that Washington could have had a couple of more opportunities this past Saturday -- namely the double pass and the deep ball that Chris Hawkins made a play on.
What does this mean for Saturday against the Bruins? For the USC offense, the UCLA defense actually is worse against efficiency, a still good 30th in the country, than it is at preventing explosive plays where it’s 12th. It’s a bit weaker at limiting opponents rushing efficiency (48th) than limiting an opponent's passing efficiency (16th). USC would be wise to lean a little more on the run game this week when in doubt. As for the defensive side, the UCLA offense is a mess all over, but might break a big play or two with it’s 43rd ranked offense in generating explosive plays, but could struggle to getting the opportunity to generate those big plays with it’s 113th ranked offense in being efficient. This season has definitely been an improvement on last and while being an elite level offense and defense in limiting efficienct, USC can look to add some explosiveness.
(stats provided by footballstudyhall.com)
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Saman Djabbari graduated from USC in 2008 and is a weekly contributor to uscfootball.com and co-host of the Traveler Hates Thursdays' podcast. You can follow him on Twitter at @samandjabbari.