USC football’s offense can put up numbers, but they won’t challenge great defenses until offensive coordinator Graham Harrell learns how to attack them.
In a year where few aspects of life feel consistent, USC football fans can always rely on Clay Helton to leave them with a bad taste in their mouth, even after a win.
USC’s unbelievable rally to overcome a 13-point deficit with less than three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter couldn’t disguise the glaring problems that are now a part of the program’s “culture.”
Offensively, the passing stat sheet looks impressive. Kedon Slovis completed 40-of-55 passes for 381 yards, two touchdowns and an interception.
Yet, USC struggled to attack a defense that chose to bring three- and four-man pressures while dropping the rest of its defenders into a zone. Much like the 2019 losses to BYU and Notre Dame, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell didn’t push the right buttons to get the offense moving.
At this point, it is fair to question whether Harrell’s scheme has enough complexity to challenge the better defenses that USC faces.
USC football’s offense needs to adjust more effectively
The “Air Raid” is designed to take advantage of what the defense gives it, yet the defense can then dictate the terms of engagement and anticipate where the ball will go as a result. In this case, the defense allowed check-down passes to running backs and short curls to receivers.
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Along the same lines, ASU was able to implement a very simple design to dissuade USC from running the football. The Sun Devils lined up with five or six defenders on the line of scrimmage and seven or eight in the box and then dropped all but three or four into a zone.
Just by aligning this way, it made USC believe they wouldn’t be able to run the ball against these fronts. To overcome this, Harrell needed to mix in some draws, work play-action seams and screens, or call the defense’s bluff and run the ball anyway.
To compound the offensive malaise, Slovis appeared to have difficulty driving the football downfield the way he did in 2019. There was a noticeable drop in velocity and his spiral rarely looked clean on replay. There were several plays, such as a dropped interception that wound up in Drake London’s hands, where it didn’t look like the Trojan QB could get the ball where it needed to be in time.
Another consistent issue with this coaching staff and the offense is the inability to deploy the team’s weapons appropriately. For most of the game, Amon-Ra St. Brown lined up as an outside receiver and went to battle against Jack Jones for ASU. Well, St. Brown isn’t an outside receiver and couldn’t get open or win one-on-one jump balls with the 5-foot-9 corner.
Later, St. Brown moved into the slot, which is where he should always be, and caught a 36-yard skinny post over the middle to advance the Trojans into ASU territory with under four minutes in the game. On this play, he lined up inside Bru McCoy, who is the receiver who should be playing outside if Drake London is to remain in the opposite slot.
And then there is the matter of the Trojans’ short-yardage woes. Time after time, ASU stuffed USC on third- and fourth-and-short. Admittedly, part of the issue is the lack of a positive (or neutral) push from the offensive line, which has been a consistent problem for Helton teams. The physicality to perform like a Clemson, Alabama, or even Oregon just isn’t there.
Yet, a more alarming trend is the lack of stressors that Harrell puts on the defense pre-snap. There is no motion to make the defense think through their assignments or reveal their coverage. The Trojans have burners in the form of Stephen Carr, Keenan Christon and Gary Bryant Jr. but don’t use them dynamically. It’s exceedingly more difficult to crash the middle on short-yardage plays when a guy that runs a sub 4.45 40-yard dash is motioning on a jet sweep look, but the Trojans do none of that.
Of course, some of these complaints would be moot if the Trojans protected the football better. Admittedly, the lack of practice time could potentially explain one or two fumbles in Week 1. However, USC put the ball on the turf four times and lost three of those. This is a troubling trend as USC moves further away from Deland McCullough’s one-year stint as running backs coach in 2017.
First, Vavae Malepeai committed the cardinal sin of stretching the football in traffic at the goal line on a non-fourth down play, which is something that should have already been emphasized not to do by the staff. Later, Tyler Vaughns was unaware of his surroundings after a catch and coughed up the ball in what appeared to be a lazy play. And then there was the late fumble by Markese Stepp in ASU territory that should have sunk the Trojans, if not for some incredible luck and the defense stepping up two possessions in a row to secure the victory.
So what does this all mean? It means that once again, the USC offense will be relying on talent to overcome their opponents this season. Slovis will need to make tremendous throws and continue to extend plays with his feet to keep this offense moving. London will need to continue being a monster in the middle of the field while fighting for extra yards and catching passes on defenders’ heads. And the running backs will need to make huge individual efforts to dance around the missed assignments upfront.
At the end of the day, the Trojans won, but like nearly every other game under this staff, it was unimpressive and didn’t inspire any confidence in the Trojans making an impact on a national stage. Until a change is made at the top, this is the way.