Examining USC’s 3rd Down Struggles vs. Boston College


Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

USC suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of Boston College on Saturday night, losing 37-31 on the rained soaked turf of Alumni Stadium.

Among several downfalls for the Trojans was their brutal performance on third down. USC converted on just five of 16 third down opportunities and missed eight in row while BC took the game over.

Just how bad were the Trojans on third down? Let us break it all down.


USC had 16 third down opportunities. Three for short yardage, three for mediums, seven qualifying as long, and three were for more than 10 yards.

Steve Sarkisian dialed up 12 pass plays on the 16 third downs, but Cody Kessler was only able to get a pass off six times. He was sacked five times and had to evade pressure and scramble one other time.

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The Trojans ran the ball just four times on third down, with only two of those instances coming in third and short with the aim of converting. Buck Allen got a white-flag carry on third and 18 late in the first half, and rushed on third and seven late in the fourth quarter when USC was set to use all four downs.

Cody Kessler was 5-for-6 on third down for a total of 75 yards, augmented by the 51-yard halfback-jailbreak screen that Allen took to the house.

USC ran 12 pass plays on third down, but were only able to get a pass off in six of them due to sacks and a Kessler scramble.

Of Kessler’s six passes on third down, three were screens and four were thrown short of the first down. The most blatant of which was a bubble screen on third and seven to Adoree’ Jackson, who was the offset receiver in trips bunch right. The Trojans had a lot of success on that formation and play last week, as it deceived Stanford’s defensive backs. It was likely a set of emphasis for BC’s defense all week, as they read the play the whole way and Jackson was quickly wrapped up for a loss of four yards.

Kessler was in the shotgun or pistol on all but one of the Trojans’ third downs, interestingly going under center on the last one while in desperation mode.

When in third and short early in the game and before the score affected BC’s defense, Sarkisian opted to run out of the pistol formation both times. It’s admittedly a small sample size, but it raises an interesting point of whether or not the Trojans are tipping their runs when dropping into the pistol. BC was a step ahead of every run on the night and weren’t phased by the Trojans’ schematics. Going forward, that’s something to watch for.

Charting the third downs

Sacks on sacks on sacks

The first four third downs of the second half all ended in sacks, keeping the Trojans’ offense from moving the ball until the BC defense dropped back half way through the fourth quarter. Sarkisian, to his credit, did make adjustments on third down to try to avoid the sacks with heavier formations and blocking schemes. But it didn’t work for a variety of reasons.

  • The first sack on third and four was a result of Chad Wheeler and Toa Lobendahn letting linebacker Josh Keyes split their blocks off the edge as a stand-up defensive end. BC was dropping back in zone coverage, but the blown blocks forced Kessler to retreat in the pocket and have it collapse around him.
  • The second was against a three-man blitz on third and long in which BC sent defensive back Dominique Williams on a corner blitz after lining up on Bryce Dixon in the slot. But the pass protection failed before Williams even enter the backfield. Defensive end Seyi Adebayo walked in nearly untouched and past right tackle Nathan Guertler, who was beat at the snap in a vulnerable position. It appears as though Guertler and right guard Damian Mama was confused as to who they were blocking. Mama keyed in on defensive lineman Kevin Kavalec, who faked a rush to leave Mama standing without anyone to block. That left Guertler to try and block Adebayo, who was a three technique inside of him. He had no chance, and neither did Kessler.
  • Personnel failure led to the third sack. A couple of Buck Allen runs gave the Trojans a 3rd and schmedium, needing four yards. Allen picked up five on first down and Sark should’ve probably dialed up a pass on second and five, as BC read run the whole way. Even still, a 3rd and four is more than manageable. But Talamaivao, playing right guard, was tricked into jumping for a false start. That forced yet another third and long, playing into BC’s tendency to blitz on long downs. Sark, expecting another blitz after the first two sacks, called for max protection on the third down, adding Randall Telfer to the line as an extra blocker. BC blitzed as expected to overload the left side of the line, but safety valve Telfer couldn’t hold his block of linebacker Matt Milano on the right side. Coverage on Kessler’s first read was tight enough to force a hesitation, giving Milano time for the sack as the pocket collapsed.
  • To respond, Sark made yet another formation change on the following third down opportunity. Added is fullback Jahleel Pinner to the backfield on third and five, to perhaps try to bait BC to call off the dogs and drop in coverage. It’s ultimately a bluff in jumbo protection, as Pinner runs a flare out to the left side, leaving the pocket susceptible to the linebacker blitz. BC sends a pair of backers on the right side, Kavalec delays his rush again to veil the inside pressure from Keyes. Center Max Tuerk hesitates and can’t recover as Keyes blows by him and sacks Kessler.


Overall, the struggles on third down were exacerbated by the Trojans’ failure to move the ball on first and second down. Throughout the game, USC ran for exactly 0 yards on seven second down carries, leaving Kessler having to throw in obvious passing downs that stoked the BC blitz.

That, compounded with the personnel struggles of the Trojans’ freshmen line was ultimately a death sentence.

So even when Sarkisian tried to make to adjustments in personnel and formational tactics, it couldn’t overcome BC’s dominance up front enough to turn the tide.

The Trojans had two beautiful hurry-up drives late, but score effects were to blame, as BC dropped back in coverage to prevent the big play and allow USC to eat up clock while down two scores.