Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Sarkisian’s Up-Tempo Spread Offense Will Pay Quick Dividends at USC


Despite losing to then-No. 5 Stanford back on October 5th, Steve Sarkisian’s Washington Huskies put in what could be a called a ground-breaking offensive effort against Derek Mason’s Cardinal defense.

Washington ran 88 plays, totaled 489 yards and converted 30 first downs.

Against a Top 5 Stanford team.

On the road.

Not only were those season highs for the Stanford defense, but only once in Mason’s three seasons as defensive coordinator have the Cardinal surrendered more in those three mainstream categories.

That’s a testament to Steve Sarkisian’s adaption of the spread option, after he decided that he needed to modernize and revamp the Huskies’ archaic pro-style offense.

You know, the same plodding offense that has grown stale at USC, leading the Trojans to finish a school-worst 11th in total offense within the Pac-12.

The Trojans’ offensive output at 392.3 yards-per-game is the lowest since Pete Carroll’s last year in 2009, when Jeremy Bates’ not-so-high-flying attack averaged 389.1 yards-per-game and finished fifth in the conference.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

Talk about how times have changed in those four years since Carroll roamed the sidelines.

Stanford led the Pac-10 in total offense with 427.6 yards-per-game in 2009. This year, that total qualify would for eighth.

It’s no secret that up-tempo spread ‘em out offenses are a way of life in the Pac-12 these days, and the Trojans are simply playing a different game.

Oregon has “the blur”. Washington State as an air raid. Sonny Dykes call his passing attack a “bear raid”. UCLA utilizes Noel Mazzone’s N-Zone. Arizona’s got the patented Rich Rod zone-read run-first spread offense.

So much offense. So many varieties. All within the Pac-12.

So it’s no secret that Sarkisian is bringing with him his experimental spread offense that helped him win eight games this year.

The new USC head coach told reporters his plan of implementing his run-first up-tempo offense on Tuesday, acknowledging its variance from the traditional I-formation packages that John McKay made famous at USC.

We’re going to have an innovative offense that accentuates the talent we have on the roster. We’re a no-huddle team. It’s a run first but we do strive for balance. We’re going to run the football. It might not be in the exact same fashion that it had been here for decades, but we’re going to run the ball and run it well.

Considering that Bishop Sankey has 1,775 yards to his name, fans probably won’t mind a new-look attack. Especially if it scores points.

Sarkisian wound up going rogue from the pro-set after a disappointing 2012 offense at Washington that saw Keith Price go from preseason Heisman Trophy candidate to a near wash-up in the blink of an eye. It forced him to tweak the offense to the talent of his players and go modern at the same time.

When profiling Sarkisian’s offense back in September following a 38-6 Washington win over Boise State, Jerry Brewer of the Seattle Times had telling observations of Sarkisian flirtation with an up-tempo offense.

When Sarkisian first mentioned picking up the pace in the spring, I figured it was just an experiment to help his defense fare better against Pac-12 foes who employ up-tempo, spread offenses. I thought Sarkisian would stick with it until he got bored, or until the Huskies failed with it. And then he would return to his library of offense, take another book and try something else. That’s the best and worst of Sark, right? The coach is a great student of the game who loves adding items to his thick playbook. But sometimes he’s paralyzed by his seemingly unlimited options.

The critiques sound awfully familiar to a USC fan, don’t they?

“At times, he would be a better offensive play-caller if he streamlined his approach and refrained from outthinking himself,” said Brewer of Sarkisian.

Eerily reminiscent of Lane Kiffin.

But then there’s progress.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

“The best thing about this offense is that it forces Sark to be simple,” said Brewer. “He must preplan drives, trust his quarterback more and go with his gut in tight situations.”

And that’s exactly what Sarkisian did, since Brewer’s first look at the Huskies’ spread offense.

From 2012 to 2013, Washington’s offense went through a night-and-day improvement.

For UW, the addition of an up-tempo spread offense slowed down the game and allowed the Huskies to simply get more, faster, while keeping defensive substitutions to a minimum and taking advantage of mismatches created in the accentuating in Sarkisian’s own personnel.

The result is an offense that ranks 18th in offensive efficiency according to Football Outsiders, up from 96th a year ago.

Washington had longer, more successful drives and picked up more first downs. Like Brewer hinted at, the Huskies improved dramatically in key situations, as noted by a 15 percent increase in third down conversion percentage.

From the basics of a 14 point-per-game improvement, to advance metrics showing that a whopping 35 percent more of drives featured a first down than they did a year ago, everything was better this year at Montlake, despite just a one-game improvement in the win column.

It’s all thanks in part to the simplicity just moving quicker.

The up-tempo offense not only was implemented, but contrary to Jerry Brewer’s initial concerns, was also committed to. Washington averaged an incredible 2.77 players per minute in 2013, up from the slow crawl of 2.18 in 2012.

According to data from Football Study Hall that ranked college football’s 20 fastest teams in terms of plays-per-minute from 2008 to 2012, the Huskies’ P/M would slot them in third behind Houston(3.02) and Oregon(2.83).

As for USC? The Trojans average a delay of game, with 2.01 plays per minute in 2013. Per Football Study Hall’s statistics, USC’s mark is slower than any FBS team averaged over the previous five seasons.

Considering that Washington got to where they are now from a 2.18 P/M mark in 2012 that was much more on par with the current Trojans than the blazing fast speed of Oregon, there has to be a sense of optimism that Sarkisian can re-create the improvement he undertook at UW.

Here a side-by-side comparison of Washington’s improvement from the pro-style system to the up-tempo spread offense, and how USC’s 2013 season compares. It should give an idea of the possibilities for the Trojans going into next year.

Stat 2012 UW 2013 USC 2013 UW
Scoring Offense 24.0 28.5 38.5
Total Offense 355.2 392.3 514.3
Rushing Offense 142.38 174.23 243.1
Passing Offense 212.8 218.1 273.3
Yards Per Play 5.11 6.01 6.48
Plays Per Minute 2.18 2.01 2.77
Plays Per Game 69.5 65.3 79.4
First Downs Per Game 19 19.5 25
3rd Down Conversions 35.64% 34.10% 50.27%
Offensive FEI -0.16 (60th) .315 (29th) .487 (12th)
Offensive Efficiency -.307 (96th) -0.62 (69th) .409 (18th)
First Down Rate 0.39 0.649 0.748
Explosive Drives 0.078 0.149 0.142
Methodical Drives 0.099 0.084 0.173
Value Drives 0.311 0.366 0.466

Source: CFBStats.com and Football Outsiders.com.

Not only did Sarkisian take a 2012 Washington offense that was very similar to a 2013 USC offense and transform it into a much more effective and efficient unit, he did it with an offense that deployed nearly the same exact personnel as it did a year ago.

As with Sarkisian continuing to rely on Keith Price, Bishop Sankey, Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Jaydon Mickens, the Trojans offense in 2014 looks to have much of the same look as it does in 2013.

With the exception of Silas Redd, the entire backfield returns, all with at least two years of eligibility remaining. At receiver, Nelson Agholor and Darreus Rogers will return, while ACL-casualties George Farmer and Steven Mitchell return to the fray after redshirting. Quarterbacks Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne are all back. On the offensive line, only one starter –right tackle Kevin Graf– graduates.

Oh, and then there’s that Marqise Lee guy, of whom Tee Martin told USCFootball.com is a six-star recruit that the Trojans are seeking a commitment from.

The pieces are there for the Trojans to make a transition just as Washington did over the course of the last year, and Sarkisian is committed to making it happen.

With a defense that currently ranks No. 1 in the conference in total defense and brings back a lot of talent in 2014 including Leonard Williams, an overhaul of the offense that produces even just slightly better production could make a world of difference for a team that found a way to win 9 games.

To quote Brewer one last time, “Sarkisian has done what you wondered if he could do: Revise the USC way and find his own way at Washington.”

That was in September.

This is now. Let the revision begin again.

Tags: Football USC Trojans

  • Pingback: USC Football: Does Sarkisian's Record Reflect His Ceiling or Washington's? - Reign of Troy - A USC Trojans Site - News, Blogs, Opinion and more.

  • Ben Factor

    Michael, thanks for the researched article. We don’t see enough of them in sports journalism. Good job.

    “The best thing about this offense is that it forces Sark to be simple,”
    said Brewer. “He must preplan drives, trust his quarterback more and go
    with his gut in tight situations.”

    This is consistent with an article I read about Belichick consulting with Chip Kelly to install more no-huddle in Boston. A play and formation are in place, and the QB has more discretion to make changes based on what he sees. Success depends more heavily on the ability of the personnel to understand and execute the audibles correctly. You have to trust the personnel more, and you have to simplify formations and assignments to enable the personnel to adapt and do their jobs effectively. I imagine that is all the more true in CFB, because of less experienced, part-time players.

    No-huddle is the best thing I’ve heard since the hire. The second best was to listen to Sarkisian and see how personable he really is.

    IMHO, Lee is 95% likely to leave. Two or three others are quite likely to join him. That’s the new reality for a CFB team built on big-time recruits. This fact reinforces the desirability of simplifying what must be learned. (If I were recruiting, I would sell the ability to get a player ready in three years, if that’s what the player and family want.)

    I expect a sort of rough first year, because of worsening depth issues. Hope I’m wrong.

    Michael, thanks again for the research. More, please.