Will Graham Harrell’s Air Raid lead to USC football being “Big-12 bad?”

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

Graham Harrell’s Air Raid should vastly improve the USC football offense in 2019, but will the pace of the game leave the Trojan defense exhausted?

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With the arrival of Graham Harrell and the Air Raid to USC football, there is renewed hope that the gifted Trojan offense will pack a punch this upcoming season.

In his time at North Texas, the former Texas Tech quarterback took the S&P+ 126th-ranked offense to No. 65 and 67 in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

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His arrival comes just in time too. Last year the Trojans were so choppy and sluggish with the ball, it looked like Jordan Jefferson trying to navigate his 2011 LSU Tigers down the field against Alabama.

However, the Air Raid’s reputation is a mixed bag that contains one of the worst fears of USC’s supporters: being “Big-12 bad.”

For those who don’t know, being Big-12 bad in football means basketball scores. It is a roller-coaster of emotions that stem from the thrill of 70-yard touchdowns, the exasperation of a pass rush gone MIA, and six missed tackles on one long play.

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A perfect Pac-12 example is USC’s 2012 loss to Oregon in which the Trojans scored 51 points but managed to give up 62. Sure, 615 total yards of offense sounds quite refreshing after the past two USC seasons, but giving up 730 yards in that same game would send most into madness, especially if it leads to quotes like this:

“We’ve done a great job moving the ball since the beginning of the season, and we’ve just got to do a better job putting the ball in the end zone,” Matt Barkley told ESPN after the loss.

The primary concerns with the Air Raid are that the number of plays in a given game will increase significantly due to incomplete passes and that the defense will be on the field more often due to short drives and quick-strike scoring plays.

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Yes, if one only wants to scratch the surface in terms of analysis, Harrell’s affiliation to the Big-12 and the pessimism regarding USC’s quarterback situation are cause for concern. However, a deeper comparison of USC and North Texas offensively offers some solace for those who still believe in defense.

The first significant stats are simple ones: offensive and defensive plays per game.

In 2018, USC averaged 66.2 plays per game on offense which ranked them 105th in the FBS out of 130 teams. For some programs, like Stanford or Wisconsin, having a low number of plays on offense is a function of their ball control style of play. Unfortunately for the Trojans, that is not the reason their defense was on the field for 72.5 plays per game (92nd in FBS).

So how did North Texas compare in 2018? The Mean Green averaged 74.25 plays per game (30th in FBS), yet their defense faced fewer plays from opponents than USC at 70.38 plays per game. Those numbers are more in line with what USC produced in 2017 (73.8 plays and 70.4 plays).

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To take it one step further, the goal for Graham Harrell and USC should be to return to its 2016 splits when the offense averaged 74.5 plays per game and the defense was only on the field for 68.2 plays per game.

So how do they get there? While a stauncher defense certainly would help, the true responsibility lies with the offense and how they control the ball throughout the game.

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After the total number of plays, it is important to analyze how quickly a team is executing its offense in order to understand what the impact may be on the defense. For example, we all remember how quickly an Oregon offense under Chip Kelly could give the ball back to the other team if it was not firing on all cylinders.

Fortunately, USC fans may not notice a significant change in offensive tempo between this year and last year, despite the shift in offensive philosophy. USC ran 2.3 plays per minute last season while North Texas got off 2.37. This will likely be a negligible difference considering the 2016 Trojans ran 2.35 plays per minute.

Ideally, the biggest change in tempo would be situational. Harrell could win a ton of fans if he operates quicker when the team is trailing or playing a team like Stanford that limits the number of possessions in a game.

While tempo may not change, there are plenty of additional areas where the USC offense can help out its defense. This begins with time of possession (T.O.P.), an area that Tee Martin and Clay Helton failed in last season (until Notre Dame).

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For an offense that was not efficient, USC’s 28:48 T.O.P. (95th in FBS) did its defense zero favors. Without efficiency (such as Clemson’s offense that was 99th in T.O.P. but scored on 46.23 percent of their drives vs. USC’s 30.38 percent) an offense that cannot stay on the field or score places its defense under an enormous amount of stress to deny the opposition points.

USC only outscored its opponents in the second half four times in 2018, primarily due to an inept offense.

Once again, the North Texas Air Raid outperformed the Trojans by holding onto the ball for 31:17 per game and scoring on 39.78 percent of its possessions. In addition, the Mean Green averaged longer drive times at 2:28 compared with USC’s 2:19, despite employing a slightly pass-happier scheme.

All of these numbers translate to more rest and less pressure for the defense over the course of a game.

Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy
Alicia de Artola/Reign of Troy /

One area that USC managed to outperform the Mean Green in during the 2018 campaign was in third down conversions.

USC converted on 37.13 percent of its third downs (which still isn’t good) while North Texas only converted 35.8 percent of the time. This is troubling until you go back to 2017 and see that Harrell had his offense converting 44.26 percent of its chances, which was 23rd in the country.

For USC to have success in 2019, Harrell will need to return to form on third down with improved talent at his disposal and eventually push the conversion rate towards USC’s stellar 47.75 percent number in 2016.

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Although North Texas struggled to convert third downs in general last season, they were better than USC at avoiding three-and-outs.

Both teams went three-and-out 45 times in 2018 but North Texas had 22 more drives (146) than the Trojans (168), excluding drives that were less than three plays at the ends of halves and included turnovers within the first three plays of a drive without first downs.

Yet again, the model to strive for comes from 2016, when USC was able to go three-and-out just 23 times in 164 chances. Avoiding these quick changes of possession is crucial to providing support for the defense.

It is an admittedly low bar for Harrell to overcome this season as he attempts to reinvigorate the USC offense. However, expectations have not and should not sink to match the performance on the field.

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Harrell was more successful at North Texas in a variety of major categories that will help USC control the ball in 2019, which means that Clancy Pendergast’s simplified defense will have every opportunity to dominate. Add in the additional depth that USC features across the entire program and there will be no excuses when it comes to pace of play.

Will we see a couple of high-scoring games against the Trojans this season? Undoubtedly. But the team-wide depth, unchanged offensive tempo, improved ball control, and clarified offensive scheme Harrell brings to USC should prevent the Men of Troy from being “Big-12 bad.”