USC Running Game Peaking Going Into Pac-12 Championship


With running backs Justin Davis, Ronald Jones and Tre Madden clicking, the USC running game should be the focus against a susceptible Stanford rush defense.

Clay Helton has been a broken record since originally being named the interim head coach at USC, in stressing that the Trojans play an aggressive brand of football, particularly like they showed in the win over UCLA.

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“We showed a great example of what we want Trojan football to be,” Helton said. “Playing great defense, being able to run the ball, having big plays by our wide receivers and playing great special teams.”

While USC has surely improved in most if not all of those areas since Helton took over in early October, it’s been the commitment to and the success of the running game that has been so apparent.

That’ll be key against Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game on Saturday, as the Cardinal have been a mixed bag when trying to stop the run of late.

Last week, Notre Dame amassed 299 rushing yards on Stanford, at an insane 8.54 yard clip. It was the second-best rushing performance of the season for the Fighting Irish, surpassed only by a six-touchdown romp over lowly UMass.

Oregon ran for 231 yards last month, including Royce Freeman going for a 6.56 yards per carry average.

USC has to stick the run game and see it out. That was a major issue in the first meeting.

While a big part of their struggles can be attributed to mobile quarterbacks like DeShone Kizer and Vernon Adams, there’s still yards to be had there. The Cardinal have given up six runs of 40-plus yards, with only Washington State and Colorado allowing more in the Pac-12.

With the Trojans having successfully adopted a run-first mentality in the 10 weeks since the teams met in September, the game plan on offense appears simple.

USC has to stick the run game and see it out. That was a major issue in the first meeting.

Troy ran the ball just 28 times for 155 yards, despite starting the game by gashing Stanford on the ground. Half of the Trojans’ total rushing yardage came on the first drive, when they averaged 10.14 yards per carry on seven attempts.

But after that, the Trojans dropped back to pass on 62 percent of snaps. The 28 total rushes stands as the fewest total of the season, and you have to go back to 2013 to find a game in which they’ve run less often. Oddly enough, that too was against Stanford.

This time around, Justin Davis, Ronald Jones and Tre Madden are peaking in their formation of a three-headed backfield, which gives Helton plenty of options and all of the reasons in the world to keep running like they have under his watch.

“Justin over the last three games is playing at an extremely high level,” Helton said. “[He has] a very physical running style that will be needed in this game.”

Davis has had back-to-back 100-yard games, freshman Ronald Jones just broke Charles White’s freshman rushing record and oft-injured Tre Madden returned to action against UCLA and looked like he hadn’t skipped a beat.

September 12, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Tre Madden (23) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Idaho Vandals during the first half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Against UCLA, they ran the ball a whopping 59 times. It was the most rush attempts USC has had since running 64 times in the 2014 season opener with Fresno State, though in 20 fewer total snaps.

“We went into [the UCLA game] knowing that Justin and Ronald Jones would get the majority of the carries,” Helton said. “We were hoping we would steal some reps from Tre in passing situations and some short yardage or goal line situations.”

Though Madden chipped in with just nine total touches, his impact was on par with the other two in terms of the significance of his share of the reps.

Both times Helton rolled the dice and went for it on fourth down against the Bruins, it was Madden that got the call. And much like the crucial third down play against Cal on Halloween, Madden came through, bad knee and all.

“For Tre Madden to come out and give everything he’s got with a broken and battered body, speaks volumes to this team,” Helton said.

Madden will play a pivotal role on Saturday against Stanford, as both teams look to control time of possession, which could shorten the game and make each drive more meaningful.

October 24, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Ronald Jones II (25) runs the ball for a touchdown against the Utah Utes during the first half at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Converting on third and fourth down will be imperative, especially when the Cardinal have the best short yardage runner in the country, Remound Wright.

Together, Madden and Davis are a tandem that Stanford has seen their fair share of. But it’s Jones that could ultimately be the X-factor on early downs.

Hardly used in the first meeting, Jones now finds himself as a co-starter. An explosive home run threat, his ability to play off of Davis and Madden could cause fits for Stanford, as they’ve been susceptible to the big run this year.

“RoJo, I just love watching him run,” Helton said. “I hold my breath every time he gets the ball. He’s kind of our changeup.”

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USC will be hoping that Jones can keep the Cardinal defense guessing and on their back foot. If that happens, it’ll likely be due to the Trojans sticking to what works and getting plenty out of the run game.

Given how it’s carried the offense over the second half of the season, it would be baffling if USC didn’t double-down on the run in their biggest game in seven years.

They’ve made that mistake once already. Saturday night in Santa Clara, Helton and his backs must show they learned from it.