Through three games, the Trojans’ defense has had an interesting and wide-ranging set of performances. They played a traditional brand of defense associated with USC football against Fresno State, but bent heavily without breaking against Stanford and were flat-out trucked by Boston College.
But despite facing three straight forward pro-sets, in addition to some of Fresno State’s spread concepts, the Trojans have yet to face an offense with a dynamic passing game.
That changes on Saturday, with the 3-0 Oregon State Beavers coming into the Coliseum. Let us go in depth on the OSU offense and their matchup with the USC defense.
Mannion’s quite the pocket passerIf you held a draft in the Pac-12 for quarterbacks, OSU senior Sean Mannion would go no better than third and perhaps even fifth or sixth. Yet, he’s far and away the conference’s best pocket passer and Mel Kiper’s No. 2 quarterback for the 2015 NFL Draft.
How’s that make any sense? The Beavers have given up 32 sacks over the last two seasons, while Mannion has a total of 44 carries of the football.
- Markese Stepp enters transfer portal intending to leave USC football
- USC football’s Alijah Vera-Tucker declares for NFL Draft
- USC football adds Xavion Alford as transfer from Texas
- Talanoa Hufanga named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, USC football with five first-teamers
- Talanoa Hufanga is officially and rightly an All-American for USC football
You don’t need to pull up game film to presume that aside from sacks, Mannion’s yards have come via the panic scramble or the ever-threatening quarterback sneak.
He’s a prototypical stationary quarterback in a conference full of highly progressive spread offenses, making him perfect for a pass-happy NFL and an outlier in the wide-open Pac-12.
That outlier status can create quite the challenge for a USC secondary that is still without Josh Shaw, and allowed Kevin Hogan to dink and dunk down the field three weeks ago at Stanford.
The recipe for Mannion to have success is simple. Get pass protection, find open receivers and deploy a wide array of screens to tighten up the USC defense, opening up the vertical passing game.
Protection of course is the key to that, and the Beavers have struggled in that department of late.
Oregon State’s offensive line has a combined seven starts on Mannion’s blindside, with its most experienced lineman being sophomore right tackle Sean Harlow.
For a USC front seven desperate to develop the pass rush that they took pride in during the last couple of seasons, an inexperienced offensive line that will be dropping back in pass protection for much of the night is a welcome sign.
And should the Trojans get in the face of Mannion, it’s important to note that despite his potential to be a strong next-level passer, he’s a gunslinger with a propensity to make mistakes.
After starting the 2013 season with a 30-to-3 touchdowns to interceptions ratio, Mannion has thrown 14 picks in his last eight games, with just 11 touchdowns.
The start of that swing last year was the USC game, where Mannion threw three interceptions and had his second lowest passer rating of the season (103.49).
So far in three games this year, he’s been picked off just twice. If Oregon State is to beat the Trojans at the Coliseum for the first time in 54 years, they’ll need to hold on to the football. It starts with Mannion limiting his mistakes.
Learning the fly sweep on the flyThe concern for the Beavers’ offense has to be the experience of the supporting cast accompanying Mannion, or the lack there of. Oregon State has lost two elite receivers the past two years to the NFL, in Markus Wheaton and Brandin Cooks, leaving a receiving corps that is starving for experience.
Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports
Sophomore receiver Victor Bolden(right) led the Pac-12 in kickoff return yardage a year ago, and won the job as the Beavers’ flanker in fall camp. And to start the season, he has looked every bit the part, filling into that prototypical OSU receiver position that versatile speedsters like James Rodgers excelled at.
But unfortunately for the Beavers, they’ll be without Bolden on Saturday.
The Southern California native dislocated his pinky finger trying to haul in a touchdown catch in last week’s win over San Diego State and will miss a couple of weeks to recover from surgery.
Without Bolden, the Beavs may be without their most potent game-breaking threat on the perimeter.
The fly sweep has long been a dynamic weapon of the Oregon State offense, and Bolden has had all but two fly sweep carries for the Beavers so far this year.
Junior Richard Mullaney is the most experienced receiver on the roster with 76 career receptions and will be the go-to receiver for Mannion on Saturday despite a nagging shoulder injury.
But don’t look for him to fill in the role of fly sweeper extraordinaire, as that’s just not his game. In 13 career games, Mullaney has yet to carry the ball.
So in steps true freshman Xavier Hawkins, a 3-star receiver out of Knoxville. Head coach Mike Riley pulled off his redshirt this week following the Bolden injury, and has immediately played with him the first team in practice.
Kristen Rodgers of KEZI in Eugene reported on Thursday that Hawkins will likely be the Beavers’ sweeper of choice on Saturday in his collegiate debut. That adds a bit of mystery to Oregon State’s offense, as it’s a player the Trojans don’t have on film.
After Boston College’s ability to get to the edge in the running game on USC’s defense, having a working sweep –or at minimum a convincing threat of one — is pivotal for the Beavers.
Should Hawkins be able to fill in for Bolden, it would go a lot way towards making OSU’s offense well rounded when everyone gets healthy later this month. For now though, it’s a freshman’s turn to step up, and the Trojans could be fortunate to dodge a more lethal bullet.
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
More to the run game than just the fly sweepThe best name in all of college football is Storm Woods. And while he may be part of the third most referenced part of the Oregon State attack due to the presence of Mannion and the fly sweep, don’t think for a second that Justin Wilcox’s defense is sleeping on the Beavers’ running back duo of Woods and Terron Ward(left).
After the debacle at Boston College, USC’s defense will be eager to try and prevent another deluge of rushing yards that the pair are capable of providing.
The tandem compliment each other well, with Woods being a combo back and Ward serving as an all-purpose playmaker with good hands and the ability to pass block.
As a freshman in 2012, Storm Woods averaged 4.9 yards per carry and finished with just shy of a thousand rushing yards. He turned heads even as a rookie in the conference, which at the time was loaded with lauded upperclassmen like Johnathan Franklin, Stepfan Taylor and Kenjon Barner.
But his production dropped off last season, ultimately seeing him split carries with Ward and finishing with an underwhelming 3.76 yards per carry average.
So far this season, Ward and Woods have been splitting carries evenly, at nearly identical rates. Together, they’ve combined for 424 yards on 77 carries, with 212 yards each.
As with OSU receivers playing a prominent part of the running game with the fly sweep, the Beavers like to get their backs involved in the passing game on swing passes and screens. Running backs account for 27.6 percent of receptions through three games this season, up from 22.5 percent in 2013 when Brandin Cooks was putting up the gaudy numbers.
Overall, it’s the collective weaponry and deployment that makes Oregon State dangerous. They might not have the extremely talented playmakers like Cooks, Steven Jackson, T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Ken Simonton or Jacquizz Rodgers anymore. But they have a wide range of ways to try and move the ball with capable talent, making them difficult to defend.
If the fly sweep isn’t working, they can pound the ball between the tackles. If they can’t get a push up front, they can still get plenty of production from their backs in the passing game. All of which opens up the vertical passing game for one of the nation’s best pure quarterbacks.
USC has yet to play a team with so many layers to the offense. With high-flying spread offenses as Arizona State and Arizona’s looming, Oregon State is a great early season test for the Trojans’ defense, to see if there’s improvement in defensive pursuit since the Boston College game.
What the stats say…
- At the moment, USC’s pass defense has put up very good looking numbers. Their 96.15 passer rating against is for good for 10th in the country and the Trojans are one of just six teams that have yet to surrender a passing touchdown so far this season. But Stanford’s Kevin Hogan completed 73 percent of his passes and totaled 285 yards three weeks ago, and had a fourth quarter touchdown pass called back for a chop block. The numbers are rooted in the four interceptions against Fresno State and Boston College abandoning their passing game against the Trojans. Saturday will be the true test to the USC secondary, as Mannion is the best passer they’ll face all season. If the pass defense stays on par with their season averages, it’ll be a huge victory for the Trojans’ defense.
- As noted above, Oregon State’s inexperienced pass protection has room to grow. The Beavers have surrendered seven sacks through three games, three of which came to San Diego State last week. Like USC, the Aztecs had trouble getting to the quarterback before their game against OSU. The Trojans are 101st in the country in sacks, which again isn’t helped by the fact that BC deployed a power option running game instead of dropping back to pass.
Projected Starting Lineups
Oregon State Offense:WR #13 Jordan VillaminWR #7 Hunter JarmonLT #62 Gavin AndrewsLG #65 Ramon SapoluC #50 Josh MitchellRG #70 Grant BaysRT #77 Sean HarlowTE #89 Connor HamlettQB #4 Sean MannionTB #24 Storm WoodsWR #8 Richard Mullaney
USC Defense:DT #90 Claude PelonNT #99 Antwaun Woods OR #52 Delvon SimmonsDE #94 Leonard WilliamsRE #58 J.R. TavaiSOLB #47 Scott FelixMILB #10 Hayes PullardWILB #56 Anthony SaraoCB #13 Kevon SeymourFS #27 Gerald Bowman OR #22 Leon McQuay IIISS #21 Su’a CravensCB #4 Chris Hawkins