USC Football: How the Idaho Offense Matches Up


After thoroughly shutting down one of the Sun Belt’s most prolific offenses, Justin Wilcox and the USC football defense now will face the less-than-potent Idaho Vandals at the Coliseum on Saturday.

RELATED: Ranking the USC Football Schedule By Threat Level

The Vandals weren’t the worst offense in the conference last year, but they have not won more than one game in three seasons. During that time, they have ranked among the bottom tier of teams in terms of scoring, including an average score deficit of 47 to 18 as recently as two years ago.

Passing game revolves around Dezmon Epps

Traditional drop-back quarterback Matt Linehan leads the Idaho offense. In 2014, he had the third-most pass attempts among freshmen behind only Arizona’s Anu Solomon and Miami’s Brad Kaaya. But his first campaign didn’t see the same kind of success.

Linehan completed 58.4 percent of his passes and threw 18 interceptions while having a 95th-ranked 114.9 passer rating. USC rendered Fredi Knighten near-useless through the air a week ago, and with Linehan a prototypical pocket passer without the threat of Knighten’s speed, Wilcox’s defense has to be licking their chops.

However, the Vandal quarterback’s struggles last year were tied to him being a freshman, a five-game touchdown drought in the middle of the year and the absence of No. 1 wide receiver Dezmon Epps.

Oct 26, 2013; Oxford, MS, USA; Idaho Vandals wide receiver Dezmon Epps (1) advances the ball during the game against the Mississippi Rebels at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Mississippi Rebels win the game against the Idaho Vandals with a score of 59-14. Mandatory Credit: Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Epps, a junior college transfer who put up stellar numbers as a junior in 2013, was dismissed from the team by head coach Paul Petrino and missed all of last season after a DUI arrest.

He’s been reinstated this year and quickly wasted no time in reclaiming his role as the Vandals’ top target. Epps caught  a freakish 15 passes for 160 yards in last week’s season opener against Ohio. The next-closest wide receiver had three catches.

Two years ago, Epps was one of the more underrated weapons in college football, catching 77 passes for 971 yards, including a 7-catch, 126-yard performance against No. 1 and eventual national champion Florida State in Tallahassee.

So while Arkansas State had their fair share of weapons in the passing game, namely H-back J.D. McKissic, the presence of Epps in Idaho’s arsenal should give the Trojans’ cornerbacks an early test against a sure-fire No. 1 receiver that is going to get a bulk of the targets.

Play-making No. 1 Pac-12 receivers loom on the schedule, meaning Week 2 will give some clarity on how effective young corners like Jonathan Lockett and Iman Marshall can be. Both should factor into the defensive game plan heavily, given Steve Sarkisian’s stressing of defensive platooning.

Starting cornerback Adoree’ Jackson missed the bulk of the season opener with an injury, though he returned to practice on Tuesday. His playing time against Idaho is unclear, as it’s possible that he’s eased back into game action considering his importance to USC’s long term plans. Kevon Seymour is expected to start, as normal.

Outside of Epps, other factors to watch in Idaho’s passing game include 6-foot-4 tight end Deon Watson. He caught 37 passes as a sophomore last season and is the Vandals’ most prolific returning receiver following the graduations of Joshua McCain and Justin Podrabsky, and the dismal of versatile H-back Richard Montgomery, Jr.

Vandal running game was weird last year

On the ground, Idaho was decent last year, although that’s not necessarily seen in the traditional numbers. The Vandals had a team-wide 3.56 yards per carry, which ranked 107th in the country. That’s not good.

Yet they were 67th in Rushing S&P by Football Outsiders and were stuffed on just 14 percent of rushes, which ranked seventh nationally. That seems pretty decent, all things considered.

Elijhaa Penny is a big, physical runner built like a taller Royce Freeman.

Idaho lost second-leading rusher Jerrel Brown to graduation but returns senior Elijhaa Penny, who scored 12 touchdowns in his first season with the Vandals. At 6-foot-2, 234 pounds, Penny is a big, physical runner built like a taller Royce Freeman.

Like any running back, finding consistency is the key for Penny, though he improved throughout 2014. His yards per carry numbers went up each month, from 3.50 in September, to 3.90 in October and finally a highly respectable 4.75 yards in November.

Against Ohio in Week 1, Idaho went all-in on Penny, giving him 89.4 percent of handoffs. He finished the night with 17 carries for 69 yards and scored a pair of 1-yard touchdowns.

Linehan needs protection from the Trojans

USC recorded just one sack last week against Arkansas State, but that’s a rather large tip of the cap to the elusiveness of Fredi Knighten. The Trojans took their chances and hit him every chance they could, forcing him to leave the pocket and ultimately bait him into throwing a pair of interceptions.

That will create a big test for Idaho’s offensive line, who gave up three sacks last week to Ohio, and ranked 95th in adjusted sack rate in 2014. The Vandals gave up a sack once every 12 pass plays, last year, which isn’t helped by Linehan’s lack of mobility.

Though for Idaho, it’s encouraging that they bring back a wealth of experience up front including four returning starters. The new starter though? Left tackle Jeff Travillion, a junior college transfer who redshirted in 2014 and is tasked with protecting Linehan’s blindside.

What the stats say

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  • In researching Idaho’s offense, the strangest quirk about the Vandals’ statistical output from last season is how methodical their offense can be at times. A stellar 20 percent of their drives had 10 players or more, which ranked ninth nationally. While that’s a characteristic that any offensive coordinator would drool over,  it’s affected by a lack of big plays. Idaho had just 47 plays of 20-plus yards in 2014, while only 10 percent of drives finished with a 10 yards per play average. Compare that disconnect to USC last year, who had methodical drives 17.6 percent of the time, with 16.9 percent of drives eclipsing 10 YPP.

Projected starting lineups: USC football vs. Idaho

Idaho Offense[table id=23 /]

USC Defense[table id=27 /]

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