USC Football: How the Arkansas State Offense Matches Up


The 2015 USC football opener against Arkansas State on Saturday night at the Coliseum will pit Justin Wilcox’s defense against a better-than-you-think offense that led the Sun Belt in passing and returns nearly everyone from last year.

RELATED: Breaking Down USC’s Week 1 Depth Chart Unit by Unit

The Trojans’ pass defense was the Achilles heel of the team at times last season, as a result of a lack of depth in the secondary. This year however, head coach Steve Sarkisian has emphasized a platooning system on defense, especially among the defensive backs to ease pressure late in games.

Can it help slow down Arkansas State? Let’s take a look at the Red Wolves’ offense, who are projected to start nine players that started against Toledo in January’s Bowl.

Fredi Knighten stirs the drink

The Red Wolves are led by one of the nation’s most underrated players, All-Sun Belt first-teamer Fredi Knighten. A dual-threat quarterback with game-breaking ability, he already sits on 25 different Top 10 lists in school history, despite having started just one season in Jonesboro.

That season was quite solid, as Knighten eclipsed 4,000 yards of total offense and had a stellar 141.08 passer rating, backed by throwing 24 touchdowns to just seven interceptions.

What made him so valuable for the Red Wolves was his ability to raise his game to a different level during high-pressure situations, which you don’t often see in rookies. Saturday night in the Coliseum should be one of those moments.

Fredi Knighten is comparable to Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keaton, whom the Trojans faced two years ago.

Knighten had a 14-to-2 touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio on the road, while throwing just one second half pick all season. That has to be comforting for head coach Blake Anderson, as the Red Wolves have hung around in games with Power 5 opponents in the past, before letting games get away. Limiting turnovers is key.

In a lot of ways as a potent dual-threat passer of a mid-to-upper tier Group of 5 team running an up-tempo offense, Knighten is comparable to Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keaton, whom the Trojans faced two years ago.

Despite the potential disaster Keeton posed, Clancy Pendergast’s 5-2 defense stymied the Aggies by bringing a lot of pressure and keeping contain. The Utah State quarterback finished with negative-15 yards rushing and the Trojans won 17-14 in a defensive struggle that featured 10 USC tackles for loss.

Though a lot has changed schematically and personnel wise, that’s the kind of result that Justin Wilcox’s defense will look for against Knighten and the Red Wolves.

A wealth of perimeter playmakers

The Trojans emphasized aggression on defense during fall camp. Plus, Improved depth in the front seven should allow Wilcox to dial up the blitz more often, as he was heavily critiqued last season sitting back and relying on defensive coverage.

Sep 20, 2014; Jonesboro, AR, USA; Arkansas State Red Wolves wide receiver J.D. McKissic (23) runs after a catch against the Utah State Aggies at ASU Stadium. Arkansas State defeated Utah State 21-14 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

But if they can’t dial up the pressure, USC could give Knighten the chance to find any of his veteran playmakers.

The Red Wolves return their top nine(!) pass catchers from last season, including versatile A-back J.D. McKissic, and a trio of receivers in Tre Houston, Dijon Paschal and Booker Mays.

Though McKissic didn’t find the end zone as a receiver last season while battling a nagging ankle injury, he’s Arkansas State’s most deadly weapon in open space. He owns the school mark in career receptions and is used by Blake Anderson in the slot, often as Knighten’s first read and go-to receiver.

In six career games against Power 5 competition, McKissic has 41 catches, including 15 against Missouri two years ago. With his experience and importance in the passing game, he should be a major factor for the Red Wolves against SC.

How do the Trojans combat his presence in the slot? Look for Su’a Cravens to draw McKissic off the edge in pass coverage, along with weakside inside linebacker Anthony Sarao providing support.

USC faced similar players last season, including Arizona State’s D.J. Foster. Though he entered the game averaging 187 yards from scrimmage, the Trojans game-planned heavily for Foster and limited him to 5.7 yards per touch, and a season-low 13 rushing yards.

It also helps that Steve Sarkisian has added the slotback to USC’s offense, giving the defense a look at it on a daily basis.

Red Wolves boast strong running game

While Knighten keeps defenses honest with his legs, it helps that he has a steady set of running backs behind him. The Red Wolves return both Michael Gordon and Johnston White, who together combined for over 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago.

Nov 16, 2013; Jonesboro, AR, USA; Arkansas State Red Wolves running back Michael Gordon (34) rushes against the Texas State Bobcats during the first half at ASU Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Gordon flirted with being a starting running back late in 2013 as a redshirt freshman but really took hold of the job midway through last year.

He combined for 356 yards in Arkansas State’s first two Sun Belt games of the season, and started the final nine games while finishing seventh nationally in yards per carry (6.92).

Despite Gordon’s success, allow for the cliche of the week: Arkansas State’s running game will only be as good as the offensive line will let it be.

At times last season, the Red Wolves really struggled up front with run blocking. They ranked 107th nationally in adjusted line yards, along with 22.9 percent of all running plays being stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage.

In short yardage situations, they were even worse. Just 52.7 percent of third and fourth down runs with two or fewer yards to go resulted in first downs, which ranked 123rd in the country.

This year, A-State will break in two new starters on the line, after losing seniors Tyler Greve and Alan Wright. Redshirt junior Devin Mondie will replace Greve at center after starting at left guard last season, with redshirt freshman Daniel Keith being the most inexperienced lineman at left guard.

Will that improve the line? It’s hard to say, though as SB Nation’s Bill Connelly pointed out in his Arkansas State preview, it would help if junior college transfers Brandon Berg and Joseph Baccus worked their way into the lineup.

Both are listed as second teamers in Blake Anderson’s Week 1 depth chart.

Altogether, they should serve as a good early season test for USC’s defensive line, who has to replace one of the best run-stoppers in school history, Leonard Williams.

Replacing the high NFL Draft pick is fifth-year senior Greg Townsend, along with a defensive line featuring its fair share of seniors in the rotation. Team captain Antwaun Woods and tackle Delvon Simmons bring experience up front.

What the stats say

[table id=17 /]

  • Part of the reason USC was ranked 20th in defensive FEI last season was that they gave up a lot of yards but minimized the damage on methodical drives and didn’t give up the big play. The Trojans gave up just 16 plays of 30+ yards in 2014, good for eighth in the nation. However, Arkansas State’s offense is built around the big play, as 21.3 percent of their drives last year were deemed as ‘explosive’, meaning they averaged better than 10 yards per play. If Wilcox can keep the big plays to a minimum, the Trojans should be able to hem the Red Wolves in by keeping contain and adding more pressure up front.
  • The Trojans faced an abundance of passing plays in 2014, which was predominantly affected by how pass-heavy opponents were in the fourth quarter. That was mostly a result of USC having a lot of leads, but the 141.13 defensive passer rating in the fourth quarter is alarming when opponents attempt 146 passes, while carrying the ball just 93 times. What’s that mean for A-State? Knighten and company could be licking their chops, as the Red Wolves were nails in not only the fourth quarter last season, but while trailing. Granted, that comes against defenses that are easing up, but Knighten had a 155.71 passer rating when trailing by more than two scores. Keep that in mind if you’re looking at USC being favored by 29 points.

Projected starting lineups

Arkansas State Offense[table id=18 /]

USC Defense[table id=19 /]

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