USC football’s ability to keep the progress in the run game against Cal was a focus as the Trojans continued preparations for the Homecoming matchup.
After rushing for a season-high 332 yards against Oregon State, head coach Clay Helton was pleased with the performance of USC football’s run game. But he is not satisfied.
“It’s one game,” Helton said after practice on Wednesday. “What I’m hoping from this offense is a level of consistency week in and week out.”
The Trojans have had three games with over 200 yards rushing, but three with under 100. In those latter three outings, the Trojans went 1-2. In the former, they wen 3-0.
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For Helton, the road to consistency is paved by the running game. If your offense put up 500 yards, chances are you ran the ball well. If you run the ball well, you open up opportunities in the passing game.
That will be critical this week against a Cal team that ranks in the Top 20 of defenses.
The bad news? The Bears rank 19th in S&P+ passing defense, holding teams to just 184 yards through the air.
The good news? They are far less proficient stopping the run, ranking 56th in S&P+ rushing defense.
Still, their average of giving up 139 yards on the ground per game far exceeds Oregon State’s Pac-12-worst 274 yards a game.
The Trojans will be looking to prove last week’s output on the ground was more a measure of changes on the coaching staff and the team turning a corner than their opponent’s deficiencies.
Helton believes they have indeed made progress there, crediting new offensive line coach Tim Drevno and graduate assistant Mike Goff with improving the emphasis on fundamentals and technique.
The other offensive change ahead of the Oregon State game—playcalling—will also be under a truth-telling microscope this week.
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Helton has called plays against Cal head coach Justin Wilcox, USC’s former defensive coordinator under Steve Sarkisian, as well as defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who was Fresno State’s head coach when the Trojans played the Bulldogs in the Las Vegas Bowl in 2013. That means he knows how difficult it will be to unlock the Bear defense.
“You put those two minds together and you can tell why they’re a Top 20 defense,” Helton said. Scheme-wise it is just a nightmare.”
Familiarity may make the schematics in this year’s matchup particularly intriguing, but Helton downplayed that aspect of the battle.
“It’s a players game,” Helton said. “It’ll be more about how our players execute on both sides, his kids and our kids.”
Notes and tidbits
- Stepping in… One new wrinkle for USC’s running game that may figure in the coming weeks is the introduction of bruising power back Markese Stepp. With Stephen Carr sidelined by a high ankle sprain, the true freshman, described as “230 pounds of grown man” by Helton, will be called upon as the Trojans’ third running back option. He has played twice this season, with garbage time carries against Colorado and special teams reps against ASU, giving USC two more games of participation to play with while keeping his redshirt intact.
- Replacing Carr… Carr’s role as a running back isn’t the only thing that needs replacing this week. He has been USC’s secondary kick returner in 2018. That job will now be filled by cornerback Dominic Davis, with Ajene Harris and Amon-Ra St. Brown backing up the duo of Velus Jones Jr. and Davis.
- Utility guys… Defensive back Jonathan Lockett has stepped in at nickelback over the past two weeks and may be called upon at cornerback this week if injury breaks don’t go USC’s way. Helton called him a “utility guy” who has learned the defense conceptually and has become all the more valuable because of it, practicing in both spots ahead of the Cal game. He reminds the head coach of Kevon Seymour, who had to wait for opportunities late in his career, but made the most of them when they came. “He’s really shined the last two weeks,” Helton said.
- Crossing fingers… It won’t be necessary to shift Lockett to cornerback is freshman Olaijah Griffin successfully returns from the shoulder injury which has taken him out of the lineup over the past few weeks. Griffin has been able to practice this week, looking good in one-on-one drills and experiencing no pain while going through contact drills, according to Helton. That has the coaches crossing their fingers that he will be available to lineup whether backing up Isaiah Langley or lining up opposite him, if Iman Marshall is sidelined by an ankle sprain.
- Upcoming star… Quarterbacks coach Bryan Ellis has impressed Helton this season getting all three scholarship passers ready to go for real playing time. “He’s got that demeanor about him,” Helton said, crediting him for being a communicator who is concerned not just with scheme but mechanics. The praise summed up: “He’s the total package. Good young ball coach. He’s going to be a star in our profession.”
- Redshirting Randal… Wide receiver Randal Grimes has not practiced since playing against ASU as he works to catch up on academics, Helton revealed. Having missed out on a redshirt last year, the Trojans are planning to redshirt him this year, the head coach added.
- Friendly rivalry… Wilcox’s staff at Cal includes former assistants Peter Sirmon and Marques Tuiasosopo, making it a “friendly rivalry,” according to Helton. “We were all together as one family at one point in time,” he said. “So it will be good to hug their necks and always it’s fun to compete against friends.”