USC must get Ronald Jones going vs. elite Ohio State rush defense

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images /

Ohio State’s No. 1 rush defense will force USC to find a way to get the most out of running back Ronald Jones II in the Cotton Bowl.

Ronald Jones II’s USC career will potentially come to close Friday night in a tough homecoming game at the Cotton Bowl against the No. 5 Ohio State Buckeyes.

The McKinney, Tex. native has been the lifeblood of a successful Trojan offense, especially given the team’s remarkable 20-0 record in games in which he carries the ball at least 15 times. But the staggering winning streak is often more a result of correlation than causation.

When USC gets push on the offensive line and runs the ball well as a team, they typically win, with Jones’ stats as a beneficiary. It makes him what offensive coordinator Tee Martin call a ‘huge’ part of the offensive game plan.

“Games where he’s rushed for over 100 yards we’re basically undefeated,” he told reporters Wednesday in Dallas.

Meanwhile, the opposite is also true.

In 2017, the Trojans only faced three teams ranked in the Top 20 of defensive Rushing S&P+. USC was 1-2 in those games, losing to Notre Dame and Washington State, and needing overtime to beat Texas.

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They averaged just 3.19 yards per carry, and that’s despite an 86-yard touchdown at WSU from Jones. Omit that run and USC’s average drops to a putrid 2.33 yards per carry.

The peak of success for the Trojans on the ground was the 306-yard outing against Stanford in Week 2, when the offensive line —notably left guard Chris Brown— mauled and punched open huge holes for Jones and Stephen Carr.

As impressive a feat as it was, it doesn’t mean as much now. The Cardinal put together what was far and away their worst rush defense since 2006.

USC needs to prove they can effectively run the ball against an elite defense, and Ohio State is just that team. The Buckeyes are the No. 1 team in Rushing S&P+, throughly dominating the line of scrimmage.

They do it by utilizing playmakers in the front seven like defensive end Nick Bosa, who leads the team with 10 run stuffs and 14.5 tackles for loss.

Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images /

“[They have] a scheme that’s sound, not overly complicated but gets the guys in position to make plays,” Martin said.

OSU effectively canceled the Heisman campaigns for Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor by holding them to a combined 85 yards rushing. Together, they posted just a 2.36 yards per carry average.

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All told, the Buckeyes held 10 different teams to less than a 3-yard average on the ground. Sound familiar?

Needless to say, if USC becomes the 11th, it’d be a surefire death sentence. The hope for the Trojans is clearly the contrary, which has already claimed Ohio State this year.

The only two teams to consistently find success running the ball on the Buckeyes? Triple-option Army —no harm, no foul there— and Iowa, who drilled OSU by 31 points.

The Hawkeyes averaged an obscene 6.39 yards per carry during the blowout in Iowa City, the second-most by anyone against an Urban Meyer-coached Ohio State team.

Anything remotely close to that will be a goal for the Trojans. Not only does running the ball effectively create game situations more conducive to winning games, but the success of the entire offense is based on a thriving Ronald Jones.

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When Tee Martin feels more comfortable upping Jones’ workload, it forces defenses to play in the box and opens up passing lanes for USC down field.

In the last two seasons, Sam Darnold has gotten the most fruit from his running back’s labor.

The redshirt sophomore quarterback has posted a 166.3 passer rating in the eight games in which Jones rushed at least 20 times. When he doesn’t, that passing efficiency drops to 147.8, while gaining 1.8 fewer yards per attempt.

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In a round about way, it underscores the importance head coach Clay Helton puts on balance. USC needs the run to be a viable threat in order to run at top gear.

Should the running game thrive with Jones and a healthy Stephen Carr, the Trojans’ chances to beat Ohio State as touchdown underdogs skyrockets.

If Jones finds a way to do what Penn State’s Barkley and Wisconsin’s Taylor couldn’t, and become the second 100-yard rusher against Ohio State this season, the game could be USC’s for the taking.

What gives him the confidence he won’t succumb to the same fate?

“Just knowing that my O-line is going to get it done and I’ve got a quarterback like Sam there to make the box,” Jones said.

But a lot has to go right. And the Trojans have to manage the run-pass distribution in a way that doesn’t limit their potential.

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Against Notre Dame, they abandoned the run too late. Against Utah, they pulled the plug too early before rediscovering it in the second half and winning the game on the ground.

Friday against Ohio State’s vaunted rush defense, they need their best performance of the year, because, even if it still doesn’t net Jones his typical production, it allows USC’s offense to be themselves.

And when the Trojans find a way to fire on all cylinders offensively, they’re almost impossible to stop.  Just ask Penn State.