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Tape Review: USC-UCLA game notes

Notes on USC players and scheme after re-watching Saturday's 36-14 Crosstown Showdown victory against UCLA.

USC/UCLA Game Notes

- For the last three or four games, Ajene Harris has been in on the kickoff coverage team early in the game only to give way to another player. Previously it had been Pie Young. This week with Young not dressed, it is John Plattenburg.

- Strange that UCLA tries to go with tempo early. When you are the less talented team, especially if you have injuries at key positions, you try to take the air out of the ball and slow the game as much as possible so that the opposition has less opportunities to use superior athleticism. It’s why you often see Ivy League basketball teams use slow and methodical offenses that force teams to play defense for the whole shot clock rather than trying to race up and down the court against teams with superior talent, but possibly less discipline.

- Clancy Pendergast shows immediately that he plans to bring constant pressure against the Bruins. USC brings extra rushers every play on UCLA’s first drive.

- On UCLA’s early touchdown pass, USC brings both linebackers, rushing six. Ajene Harris slides in the single high spot due to the wide receiver motion across the formation, moving Chris Hawkins into man-to-man coverage with Harris as the Cover-1 rover. Adoree' Jackson plays outside leverage on Jordan Lasley knowing he has Harris in the middle of the field, but after missing on a somewhat timid attempt at a pass deflection, he pulls up. Harris reads Mike Fafaul and break on the ball fine, but takes a bad angle on what could have been a kill shot. Instead, he misses the tackle allowing Lasley to take a 17-yard completion and turn it into a 56-yard touchdown. 

- What a weak unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on Jordan Lasley. He danced a bit, but gets in trouble from the refs when he slaps hands with the student section. Come on, man! Let the kids have some fun in a rivalry game, especially when there wasn’t a USC player to be offended within 20 yards of the action. #Pac12Refs

- That penalty really affects the game too. Knowing Adoree’ Jackson is lurking, UCLA freshman J.J. Molson kicks the ball out of bounds and suddenly, USC has the ball at the 50-yard line versus UCLA’s defense being able to carry the momentum of the early score. Even if UCLA forces a three-and-out on this possession, which it was unable to do until USC was up by 22 points, the Bruins would have got the ball inside their 20 needing a full field drive rather than possibly getting good field position to potentially build off a quick score and a defensive stop.

- UCLA starts out in a 4-3 Under look meaning they’ve shaded their defensive line to the opposite side of where USC's tight end is lined up. On their first play from scrimmage, the Trojans simply say thanks for lining up like that and run away from where UCLA is shaded. A pulling Nico Falah picks up linebacker Kenny Young as he charges forth and Ronald Jones II has an easy hole to run through that gets him three yards upfield and to the second level of defenders before he is touched. Damien Mama and Viane Talamaivao double team the nose tackle and push him back five yards, but both end up on the ground. If they could have comboed and then one taken the linebacker, a 6-yard gain turns into a one-on-one with the safety for RoJo.

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- Dominic Davis checks in early for what will be his only play of the night. They send him in motion…and then have him block on a screen to JuJu Smith-Schuster? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Davis’ block is not sufficient. Smith-Schuster gets three yards on a play that should have got at least double that.

- Color analyst Brian Griese points it out, Sam Darnold definitely misses a huge gainer on the play that becomes an intentional grounding. UCLA is blitzing a pair of linebackers and Daniel Imatorbhebhe releases straight through the line and is WIDE open. The play fake holds Josh Woods, who only turns to run after Imatorbhebhe after Daniel is 12 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. The blitzers then get to Darnold, who tries to run away, but can’t get the throw back to the line of scrimmage.

- USC runs essentially a middle screen for JuJu Smith-Schuster on third-and-long. The three outside receivers run deep while Darnold gets him the ball cutting from right to left against man defense and Daniel Imatorbhebhe, who is crossing the other way delivers a block a step after Smith-Schuster’s catch. JuJu turns upfield and picks up 16 of 17 yards to go.

- On fourth-and-1, the Trojans unveil a new wrinkle that builds off some plays under center they have run in previous weeks where they handed off to a receiver in motion on a jet sweep. This time, they fake the handoff and quick pitch to Justin Davis going the other direction. Despite running the play to the boundary side, Davis is able to get to the corner and pick up two yards.

- USC brings in an extra lineman with Chuma Edoga at the tight end position for Ronald Jones II’s plunge into the end zone for the first score. Great push by Damien Mama and Chad Wheeler against the nose tackle to open up a hole with Nico Falah doing a nice job redirecting a linebacker away from the point of attack.

- Jim Mora comes sprinting down the sideline, kneels and points at a space between a divot and the out-of-bounds marker where a UCLA player stepped and was called out.

- Great play recognition and closing speed by Leon McQuay III on a short swing pass to a receiver in motion. McQuay reads the play developing and is one step inside the far hashmarks when the pass is delivered five yards behind the line of scrimmage, but closes like a banshee, taking a direct route and creating a big collision at the line of scrimmage outside the numbers and tackling the receiver for a one-yard gain just inside the sideline. That’s a lot of ground to cover and he finishes with a solid tackle.

- A UCLA receiver drops a ball that hits them in the hands? Shocker.

- Another creative blitz that USC unveiled for the first time forces a punt with a third down incompletion. The Trojans showed a double A-gap blitz with the inside linebackers and bring it, but drop both outside linebackers into the flats. It isn’t just a four-man rush though. Leon McQuay III comes sprinting up from his safety position after the snap. Cameron Smith beats the right guard and applies the pressure that forces a throw away.

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- If Ronald Jones II catches the flare pass that he drops, it is at least a 10-yard gain because he’s already running at full speed. That’s a play you run on Madden. Get a fast guy flaring out to the wide side of the field with linebackers and safeties trying to keep up with his speed.

- Sam Darnold pulls another in-the-pocket Houdini. Chad Wheeler gets beat on a nice outside-in move by Deon Hollins and probably gets away with a hold. Darnold shrugs free of Hollins’ grasp and steps up in the pocket for a half a second looking for a receiver. Hollins is coming back for a second attempt and Darnold feels him on his back, so he ducks down and runs to daylight out the back left of the pocket. As he’s regaining his balance, he’s again looking downfield and spots Deontay Burnett. As Darnold gets upright and turns his shoulder, Burnett is smart enough to read Darnold’s movement and stop going upfield, which he began doing when Darnold initially escaped the pocket. The cornerback’s shoulders get turned upfield and he can’t turn around to come back and break up the pass before it has already arrived because of the arm strength Darnold possesses. It also shows just how thin the line between brilliance and disaster can be as Takkarist McKinley’s hand comes within inches of hitting the ball as Sam starts to deliver.

- If I was planning to run a trick play against USC, I'd try to call it against the combination of Marvel Tell III and Leon McQuay III at safety and possibly get Ajene Harris and hopefully Jack Jones on the same side of the defense. All four defensive backs are ultra aggressive, which is great for rallying to the ball and helping swarm ball carriers, but can be susceptible to the trick plays. On UCLA’s double pass, McQuay does a great job of being disciplined and dropping into his zone, but Tell aggressively comes across the formation, allowing the running back to leak out the backside where there is no defender as Iman Marshall is matched up one-on-one and coming across on a post. UCLA gets a 30-yard gain, but an earlier throw by Jordan Lasley might have given Brandon Stephens an opportunity to get up the sideline before Tell could react and make the tackle as he did. That proves crucial when the Bruins later get a field goal blocked.

- Iman Marshall coverage on flag route against Jordan Lasley = absolute textbook.

- Good communication by Marvell Tell III on the third-and-7 that stalls out UCLA’s drive on the final play of the first quarter. The Bruins send a receiver in motion and USC rotates its safeties with Tell coming over to the side of the motion and Leon McQuay III taking the high safety spot. When Tell rotates over, he yells and signals to Adoree’ Jackson about how to approach a potential inside-out combo route, which is exactly what UCLA runs. Tell covers the outside guy coming in and when the inside guy comes outside, Jackson blows by him to come up and make the tackle for loss on a swing pass.

- Great throw from Sam Darnold to JuJu Smith-Schuster down the right sideline to open the second quarter for USC, but JuJu pulls up lame on what could have been a big completion.

- Tremendous break on the ball by Fabian Moreau to intercept Darnold. He guessed slant, read De’Quan Hampton’s break and just beat him to the ball. Just a great defensive play to know the down and distance and what USC might try to run.

- UCLA follows it up with a well-timed throw and good hands catch by Jordan Lasley away from his body, which he uses to shield Adoree’ Jackson from the ball. On his break, Jackson gets just a little bit wide, which keeps him from being able to attack Lasley’s arms for a PBU rather than trying to go through his back to get to the ball.

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- When Ronald Jones II sees a seam, he just explodes through it. He gets on the second-level defenders with a quickness, especially when Nico Falah pulls around and takes out one of the linebackers in front of him.

- Randall Goforth comes flying up from his safety position and ends up laying on the turf face first on USC’s side of the line of scrimmage as Ronald Jones II is breaking through the line outside Zach Banner where he has bounced the third-and-1 run that he turns into 60 yards and six points. UCLA’s defense crashes down on the middle where the Trojans’ run was designed to go. USC’s line gets a good push and Jones probably has enough space to blast into the line and pick up the needed yard, but with the linebackers and Goforth avalanching the line, Jones puts his left foot in the ground and pops to his right, running at an slight angle forward, but headed toward the sideline. But as soon as he gets a step past Banner, Jones puts his foot down, pivots and then the rocket boosters pop out the bottom of his shoes and he runs by the Bruins defense with only Fabian Moreau able to chase him down at the goal line. Good block by De’Quan Hampton on the outside while Banner basically sits on Takkarist McKinley while watching Jones run into the end zone.

- If you get the ball to Adoree’ Jackson in space, it’s almost always going to be a positive play. A little (lateral) swing pass goes for a 17-yard gain because Jackson has the speed to get open field yards and then he always finds a way to fall forward for a couple extra yards -- at least six after contact on this play.

- When De'Quan Hampton's first career touchdown play happened, I was surprised Sam Darnold didn’t throw to Darreus Rogers, who was the short receiver on the same side. Darnold first looked to Adoree’ Jackson’s side, but he had been pushed out of bounds by Fabian Moreau. The outside cornerback on the other side was even with Hampton while Rogers was about seven yards shorter. Instead of taking the safe option with Rogers, Darnold uncorked what was essentially a jump ball. But he threw it inside enough that it was a one-on-one matchup between Hampton at 6-foot-4 and safety Randall Goforth at 5-foot-10 without the cornerback being able to make it over in time to help defend the pass.

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- To show what kind of teammate he is, after De'Quan Hampton's touchdown, basically the entire receiving corps, including the freshmen not dressed, was waiting for him on the edge of the sideline waiting to celebrate with him.

- Sam Darnold keeps on the read option and runs right by Takkarist McKinley getting to the edge and a 15-yard gain with ease. If USC just shows that Darnold will keep it once or twice a game, it changes the way the defense has to defend the play.

- When you have to go to your backup center, there is always a concern of an errant snap, which is exactly what happens when Khaliel Rodgers comes into the game for a single play after Nico Falah presumably went to the sideline after dislocating a finger on his non-snapping hand the previous play.

- On third-and-impossible, Darnold launches a throw into the end zone that is intercepted and effectively works as a punt. No biggie, right? Sure, if he didn’t have two guys open underneath that he could have hit for 5, 10, maybe even 15 yards to put USC into field goal range, which would have made it a two-score game. (And Brian Griese was all over this one too. Apparently, we're watching the same game unlike many other talking heads during games.)

- After the interception, Viane Talamaivao steam trained Randall Goforth. I don’t know if Talamaivao had any intention of going after a tackle, but he was going full speed and when Jayon Brown changed directions, Talamaivao just took out the next closest Bruin, which happened to be Goforth and he didn’t immediately get up after taking the shot from the offensive lineman.

- Porter Gustin gives a matador move to the right tackle trying to block him and goes right by him into the backfield where he makes a tackle for a two-yard loss. The center is pulling on the play, but can’t pick up Gustin because USC is bringing an extra defender once again with Cam Smith coming off the edge.

- Adoree’ Jackson is all over a post route by Jordan Lasley. Good throw by Mike Fafaul right on Lasley’s outstretched hand, but Jackson was step for step with Lasley and able to leap and get his fingertips on the ball to deflect it. 

- USC does a nice job taking shots at getting to the end zone with time winding down in the second quarter before ending up getting points to make it a two-score game at halftime. However, I’m not a fan of the third down spike after Justin Davis’ eight-yard pickup on a swing pass. Even if you have to huddle up, god forbid, have two plays called that you can run rather than having to spike it. Run the swing pass and then if there is time like there was, have an automatic fade route to JuJu Smith-Schuster or Darreus Rogers that Darnold can throw out of the back of the end zone if he doesn’t like what he sees. Incompletion would work the same and give the Trojans one extra shot at the end zone.

- A very generous spot keeps the offensive line from giving up a sack when Sam Darnold is pulled down early in the third quarter. Should have been a yard loss and a sack, but instead is marked at the line of scrimmage giving a zero-yard rush on the scoresheet.

- Deontay Burnett gives up a first down on an 8-yard in route to bounce inside a defender and take his chances getting to the edge. It works perfectly thanks to nice block by Ronald Jones II.

- De’Quan Hampton gets his second touchdown on a play designed to get JuJu Smith-Schuster into the end zone as a secondary option, but Hampton is filling in for him after Smith-Schuster limped off the field once again. Darnold initially looks to Daniel Imatorbhebhe on a stick route, which is potentially a good play against zone coverage. However, he is singled on a cornerback picking him up off the line of scrimmage in man-to-man, so Darnold holds the throw and looks to the other side where Hampton is running a slant from the outside receiver position in a formation that has three-receivers to the wide side of the field. But the route combination is a "pick route" from Darreus Rogers running an outside flat route. Rogers is in the path of Fabian Moreau but jumps out of the way to avoid the defender. Moreau hesitates a half step, which is enough to give Hampton the inside and Darnold delivers a strike in a wide open window created by Nico Falah and Zach Banner. Really love this play design since it’s great against zone on one half of the field and man on the other side.

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- UCLA picks up a first down on its first drive of the second half, marking the first time in six possessions that it did so (*one drive ended in a touchdown but no first downs). However, USC gets a stop on third-and-short after the initial first down and the five-play drive will be the only plays UCLA’s offense gets in the third quarter.

- That first down and an eight-yard pickup on the next play come courtesy former USC walk-on Caleb Wilson. Good to see him have a positive night after he basically got put in no man’s land not being on football scholarship following his dad’s firing from the coaching staff.

- Bolo Olorunfunmi fumbles on a carry to the right. Looks like Rasheem Green may have poked it out and should have been credited with a forced fumble. That guy has been everywhere the last couple of weeks, including the very next play when he takes on the block, scrapes down the line while avoiding a fallen offensive lineman at his feet and helps Michael Hutchings and Cam Smith stop an outside zone run short of the first down marker. Hutchings starts in the middle and does a really nice job of recognizing the play and getting outside to make the stop.

- Interesting decision by UCLA to decline a holding penalty and a potential second-and-21 to have a third-and-12 that USC picks up with a 15-yard pass to Daniel Imatorbhebhe.

- Third-and-2 and Sam Darnold gives on the read option to Justin Davis. Davis picks up one yard but is tackled by the defensive end crashing down. Darnold could have kept for an easy 5+ yard gain for the first down.

- Good job by Damien Mama and Nico Falah getting a push to give Justin Davis a small window to pick up a conversion on fourth-and-1. Davis takes a lick from Jayon Brown for his effort.

- On third-and-goal from the 14, Takkarist McKinley beats Chad Wheeler with a speed rush to the outside and gets to Darnold as he’s trying to throw the ball. It’s a touchdown-saving pressure because JuJu Smith-Schuster was bending a post across the end zone and had a good step and a half on the defender. After the play, Smith-Schuster squatted in the back of the end zone and put his hands on his head because he knew he would have had a touchdown.

- Adoree’ Jackson’s very mild ankle injury actually occurred with no one else around him after a play. He was bouncing away from a play and did what we’ve all done and just stepped wrong rolling it. Humans aren’t always good at bipedalism.

- Rasheem Green swats away a pass attempt — something that Kenechi Udeze deserves a lot of credit for on the defensive line. Seems they get their hands on a handful of passes every game.

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- Ajene Harris has done a good job in the nickel spot, but he still occasionally gets caught on his heels. He allows a six-yard slant but makes a solid tackle to limit the gain. On the next play, he has an opportunity at a sack as a free rusher off the edge, but attacks Mike Fafaul's front hip and Fafaul spins out of the pocket away from the pressure before ultimately throwing the ball away. It’s obviously a difficult multi-task job to ask, but when you are coming free as Harris was, you have to have a sense of where the rest of the rush is coming from. Porter Gustin is coming off the opposite edge and the pocket is collapsing on Fafaul, so if Harris attacks the back hip and forces Fafaul to step up rather than spin out, one of his teammates likely gets the sack even if he didn’t.

- Good coverage by Ajene Harris on the fourth down play as he trails Darren Andrews across the formation on the drag route. Harris does raise straight up out of his stance and takes a small false step, but puts his head down and chases hard after Andrews. It looks like Harris would have been able to make the stop on his own just shy of the first down line, but Chris Hawkins comes up and delivers a big form tackle to keep Andrews from getting anywhere near the marker causing a turnover on downs. Before the tackle, Hawkins did a nice job of avoiding the umpire, which can be a danger when covering drags and crossing routes. Hawkins has told me previously he calls his celebration where he puts his hands up and waves them the “a lot mo’ game left” because he doesn’t want to focus on that one play. But after his fourth down stop, Hawkins doesn’t do what has become a patented celebration for him and several teammates this season. Instead, he takes his helmet off and runs straight to the bench to sit down. Maybe that was the “this game’s over” celebration?

- A bogus illegal shift call costs Aca'Cedric Ware a 10+ yard run. It’s okay though because USC picks up 17 on the next play.

- You’re not going to ingratiate yourself to the guy that is going to be your quarterback for at least half your collegiate career by dropping touchdown passes. Michael Pittman lets what would have been his first career touchdown pass slip through his arms.

- Jordan Iosefa narrowly misses a punt block. It seemed he hesitated just a half second when going around the protectors, possibly surprised none of them blocked him and that kept him from getting there. If the punter would have kicked the ball straight ahead, Iosefa still would have blocked it, but the punter booted it out of bounds to the left.

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- Why the hell is UCLA punting at midfield on fourth-and-10 with 3:37 left? That’s being scared of the score looking too bad rather than trusting your players to make a play.

- Good to see James Toland IV getting some carries in the garbage time. He shows an ability to make guys miss on a second down play where Jayon Brown breaks through the line only to have Toland juke outside where he turns a negative play into a two-yard gain. 

- Jayon Brown shows his frustration and, by extrapolating, his character with a blindside shot on Chris Brown away from a pile on the next play and then again does the same thing to Isaac Whitney on the following play. He gets nowhere near a tackle on either play.

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