The Blitz is a Lie

“We need to blitz more.”

This is something I hear a lot, especially after a USC loss.  Doubly so after a loss that can be attributed back to a poor defensive performance like the one we saw against Stanford on Sept. 19th.  However, in my experience, this is often a false statement.  Many fans cannot accurately diagnose a blitz in real time but instead rely on after-the-fact analysis (ex: the QB got sacked and in watching the replay it is easily recognized as a blitz which caused the pressure).  However, when a team blitzes a lot but is still unable to put consistent pressure, this often leads to many fans incorrectly clamoring for “more blitzes.”

First, let us look at some defensive numbers regarding the blitz during the USC vs Stanford game then we’ll take a look at some further analysis that may shine a better light on what happened on that long Saturday night.

The Blitz

A blitz is a high risk-high reward play.  Typically, it is defined as any play that you send one or more more non-defensive linemen in to pressure on the offense’s side of the line of scrimmage.  In the terms of a 3-4 defense (which USC employs), rushing the three defensive linemen and a single linebacker is often called a “Dog” scheme and is not considered a blitz.  Here, we’ll simplify the definition of the blitz and count it as any time USC sent five or more defenders in as rushers (many other pressure concepts such as the zone blitz, twists, and stunts are ignored here for simplicity).

I rewatched the game and tracked 72 Stanford offensive plays (I didn’t count things like spiking the ball or kneels as plays).  First, I want you to formulate a guess on how many of those plays USC sent in a blitz.  Really think about the game and your game plan observations.  Have a number ready?  Initially, my gut feeling was about 20% blitzes, so 14 or 15 plays with a blitz.

In fact, the real number that I tracked was 43 blitz plays, or 59.7% of defensive plays sending five or more defenders in for the rush.  Surprisingly high, I thought.  Let’s take a closer look.

Of the 72 Stanford offensive plays, I noted 31 passes and 41 runs (note that I counted QB scrambles, sacks, and screen plays as passing plays whereas most official stats often track these as runs for college).  Let’s look at some passing numbers first.

Blitzing the Pass

On the 31 passing plays, 12 were blitzes (38.7%).  Against the blitz, Stanford gained 10.0 yards per pass against the blitz and 9.8 yards per pass against a non-blitz.  Completion percentage wise, we’re looking at a 66.7% completion rate against the blitz (77.8% if you count the pass that hit the tight end in the hands as a “should have been completed”) versus an 85.7% completion rate against a non-blitz.  Lower completion rate against the blitz but slightly higher yards, signifying they are making more yards when completing passes against the blitz.

Now let’s look at pressure against the pass.  USC got three sacks but only one sack came from a blitz (9% of blitzing plays against the pass) and two from a non-blitz (11.8% of non-blitzing plays).  Sacks aren’t the only end goal of the pass rush though.  54.5% of blitz plays resulted in the QB being pressured versus 35.3% of non-blitz plays.  You can see this reflected in the completion percentages.  Interestingly enough, “big blitzes” (sending six or more rushers in) resulted in no plays with pressure and no sacks.

Blitzing the Run

Now let’s look at the run.  Against 41 running plays, 31 of those plays were blitzes (75.6%).  Tracking blitzes on the run is trickier since upon reading a “run”, defenders go into their run fits and start filling gaps.  Who is filling a gap and who was blitzing?  I keyed in on the first step and initial attack movements of the defender to count the blitzes.  There will be some inconsistencies with this method, namely delayed blitzes and zone blitzes may be miscounted for one reason or another, but we’ll just go with best guesses.

Against the blitz, Stanford gained 4.2 yards per carry versus 4.1 against a non-blitz.  Sending the pressure did not result in less yards by Stanford.  My initial thoughts are that USC’s linebackers were not able to penetrate the bigger Stanford offensive front on the run, regardless if they had forward momentum of the blitz or not.  More on this later though.

Successful Plays

A play is considered “successful” for the defense if they hold the offense under 50% of the yards-to-go on 1st down, 70% on 2nd down, and 100% on 3rd or 4th downs.  I tracked whether a defensive play was successful or not in relation to the blitz.

Over the 72 plays, USC was successful in defending 33 of them (45.8%).  When blitzing, USC was successful on 48.8% of defensive plays compared to 41.4% of non-blitzing plays.  Not a huge difference between the two margins (about a 2 play difference).  The interesting thing is how unsuccessful big blitzes were.  Big blitzes only had a success rate of 15.8%.

So What Did Happen Against Stanford?

So USC blitzed on over half of their plays.  Why were we so unsuccessful overall in stopping Stanford?  My thoughts after re-watching the game are three-fold.

First, Stanford expected us to blitz.  USC blitzed heavily in the week prior against Idaho and Stanford expected us to do the same against them.  They utilized a number of techniques to combat the blitz, most notable being the QB rollout and screen passes.  Additionally, Stanford would often times keep extra blockers (RBs and TEs) in for protection.  On average, Stanford had 5.7 blockers in on each play, keeping at least the running back for protection on 66.7% of their plays.  They kept two additional blockers in on 22.2% of their plays.  On average, Stanford had 1.3 more pass blockers than we had pass rushers.  On only 4 plays did USC have equal numbers of rushers to blockers.  Additionally, the only time we had more rushers to blockers were screen plays, which is exactly what Stanford wanted.  Against these screen plays, our rushers did not adjust properly towards the screen and we gave up big yards on key plays (10 yards on a 2nd and 15 as well as 19 yards on a 3rd and 7, both which lead to 2nd half Stanford scores).  However, keeping extra blockers in means you have less passing options as you only have three or four guys out on routes.  Which leads me to my second observation.

Stanford utilized size mismatches effectively.  I noted at least two game-pivotal plays which size mismatches played a large role in our defensive breakdown on a blitzing play.  The first on a 3rd and 9 on the USC 16 early in the 4th quarter.  Here, Stanford expected our blitz (we sent in six) and kept the RB in for protection.  They easily found the size mismatch they wanted with Safety Marvel Tell III (6′ 2″, 190 lbs) attempting to cover TE Austin Hooper (6′ 4″ 248 lbs).  Hooper just used his body to easily box out Tell.  In another notable play, USC sent in a big blitz of seven rushers, leaving one-on-one coverage.  Stanford again predicted our blitz and negated this by calling a QB rollout, causing none of our rushers to pose any sort of threat to Hogan.  Safety Chris Hawkins (5′ 11″, 190 lbs) attempted to cover Devon Cajuste (6′ 4″, 227 lbs) in the endzone.  In this case, the wingspan and size advantage got us.  By utilizing size mismatches, Stanford was able to mitigate some of the effects of having fewer receivers out on routes.

Finally, an observation defending the run.  USC’s defense was often times in the correct position and gap responsibilities for the play, but would fall short on leverage and execution.  What this means is that the USC defenders were getting to the right spots but losing their one-on-one battles consistently.  We can quantify this by looking at yards after contact.  Stanford gained an average of 4.1 yards per carry.  Not great numbers, but it was four yards like clockwork.  When you have that type of consistent four yards every rush, it leads to first downs and extended drives.  It gets more interesting when you look at yards after contact.  Stanford’s rusher made first contact with a defender at 1.6 yards on average.  That means that after contact, Stanford would gain an additional 2.5 yards per carry.  Much of this was simply the runner always falling forward.  Often times, our defenders did not have the size, the leverage, or have their blockers beat enough to stop the runner in his tracks or drive him back and could essentially only trip the rusher.  In my opinion, this was the greatest shortcoming of the defense.


Joe Paterno often said: “You’re never as good as you think you are when you win; and you’re never as bad as you feel when you lose.”  I think those words ring true here.  I’ve rewatched and analyzed a fair share of USC losses over the past few seasons.  This one hurt a lot live but on film study it definitely wasn’t one of our worst.  The issues I saw seemed fixable.

Furthermore, I think our defense is much more suited towards stopping speed rather than size.  Most of the Pac-12 has gone speed, so we won’t need another “size” gameplan of this scale this season unless we have a rematch with Stanford again in the conference championship game, something that I think is completely achievable.  There’s a reason why both ESPN’s Football Power Index and the S&P+ Rankings both still have USC in the top 10 and highest rated in the Pac-12.  Let’s move forward and prove them right.

And remember, we didn’t need to blitz more…


An Analysis of Two Buck Allen Runs against Arizona

This post will look at two touchdown runs by Buck Allen in USC’s road win at Arizona.  The first run was a 34 yard run late in the 1st quarter while the second was a 48 yard run early in the 2nd quarter.  These were the first two touchdowns by USC in the game.

Allen’s 1st Touchdown Run

I really loved rewatching the first touchdown run by Allen.  This is because it was near flawless execution of one of my favorite plays in football: the power run.  First, here’s a link to the video:

Let’s look at the play diagram presnap.


USC lines up in the shotgun with the strong side to the right.  Arizona counters by lining up tight.  The corners are playing press coverage and Arizona puts five on the line with one linebacker playing right behind the linemen and the other linebacker at normal depth.  There is a single high safety.  USC motions the wide receiver on the boundary from the right to the left which brings the cornerback across the field as well.

Let’s look at what the defense does first.


The corners play all three receivers in man to man coverage (including the receiver in motion).  Arizona sends in a blitz with six pass rushers.  They try to overload the right side and get a good push up the middle between the center and the right guard.  The linebacker who doesn’t rush in is likely the perimeter force player who has the responsibility to force any runs back inside.

Now for the offense’s play call.


The receivers on the left fake as if they are blocking for a swing pass / wide receiver screen to the receiver in motion.  This keeps backside secondary players on the left side away from the play and also probably helps freeze the safety.

The more interesting things are happening up front in the blocking scheme.  The backside (left) linebacker who is on the line of scrimmage is left unblocked.  Instead, the left tackle goes in and blocks the left defensive end.  The center and right guard block the nose tackle which also bottles up the blitzing middle linebacker.

Now for the key blocks.  The right tackle is the seal block.  He gets the right defensive end and turns him towards the center of the field, effectively walling off any defenders from coming from the backside of the play.  The tight end takes on the right outside linebacker and is the “kick out” player.  He turns the outside linebacker and walls off the other side, creating an alley for the running back to go through.  The left guard pulls from the the backside and is the lead blocker for the running back.  This “pulling guard” will take on whoever is the greatest threat; in this case, it is the linebacker who we noted as the perimeter force player.

Let’s take a look at how this play unfolds.  Luckily, the TV broadcast showed this play from both the sideline standard TV angle as well as the angle from behind the offense, which gives us a great view for analysis.

Here is the pre-snap look for the play.  Not too much interesting going on yet.


This is the play at the snap.  The man in motion draws the cornerback across the formation (red arrows).  This further opens up the play side.


The snap of the ball is high.  Luckily this didn’t affect the timing of the play.  The left guard starts to pull across the formation (circled in the top screen).


The key blocks are starting to happen here.  The right tackle has turned his defender in and walled off the play (circled in red on the top).  His positioning is perfect as it makes it so that none of the interior defenders have a direct route to the alley.  The running alley is clearly seen in the bottom picture with the red lines outlining it.  The backside linebacker is unblocked and has the highest opportunity to blow up the play (yellow arrows).


The backside linebacker that was mentioned above takes a route for the quarterback.  He must have read play action or thought the high snap would disrupt the run’s timing.  This takes himself out of the play.  The pulling guard takes on the linebacker and everyone is still keeping on their blocks.  This means that the only player who can now make the play on the running back is the free safety.


Allen jukes and outruns the free safety, solidifying the touchdown.


Allen’s 2nd Touchdown Run

Now let’s look at the 2nd touchdown run by Allen.  This play is also a power run, but goes more towards the inside.  Here is a link to the video of the play:

First, let’s look at the presnap diagram.


This time, USC lines up in a Pistol formation with the strong side to the right.  The defense lines up with with eight men in the box.  USC motions the left receiver behind the Quarterback, similar to the other play that we looked at.  The defense responds by rolling almost the entire secondary.  The corner who was on the motion receiver moves back towards the safety.  The linebacker on the left moves closer into the box.  The right side linebacker moves up to the line of scrimmage.  The safety rolls down and right to defend the swing pass and the end around.  The right side corner goes from press to loose coverage.

Now let’s see the defensive play diagram.

The left corner continues to drop back as the deep coverage zone.  The safety rolls down to crash on the motion receiver while the right corner plays man to man on his receiver.  The defense blitzes five with the right linebacker going in.  The other linebackers roll to the right to cover the gaps and play fairly close in.

Let’s look at the offense’s response here.

On the right side, the receivers again fake a swing pass with the right receiver going in for a block on the safety.  Now for the front line blocking scheme.  The left tackle just stays on the defensive end who is trying to go wide.  The left tackle is perfectly happy to let this defender get to the backfield since it will take himself out of the play.  The left guard pulls and combos with the fullback as the “kick-out” block.  The center blocks the nose tackle across from him and keeps him backside.  The right guard and right tackle both combo on the defensive tackle to push him backwards.  This helps generate a huge running lane for Buck Allen.  After getting a good backward push on the defensive tackle, the right guard then moves on to block one of the linebackers.  The tight end picks up the blitzing linebacker and blocks him.

Now let’s look at how the play unfolds.  For most of the play there were two angles shown on the TV broadcast: one standard TV angle and one wide, zoomed-out angle.

Here is a look at the play presnap.


This is the play at the snap of the ball.  The motion of the receiver (yellow arrow) causes the defense to shift (red arrows).  The defense is fairly loaded with eight players in the box and showing blitz.


This is the play at the handoff and when things start to get really interesting.  On the top view, you can see the pulling guard (red circle).  You can also see the double team blocking (yellow circle) which helps drive the Arizona line backwards.  On the bottom view, you can see the threat of the swing pass (red arrow).  This draws the safety down (yellow arrow) and pulls him away from the play.


Here is the play shortly after the handoff.  There is a lot of interesting stuff here, so we’ll take multiple looks at this.  First thing to note is that the right guard has released his double team now that the defensive lineman has been driven back and is controlled by the right tackle (yellow circle).  Not only has the right tackle controlled the block, but he has also managed to turn the defensive lineman, which is key to creating the running lane.  The right guard is now at the second level blocking a linebacker (red circle).


The next thing I wanted to point out is the center (red circle).  The center has driven the nose tackle a good two yards past the line of scrimmage and continues to drive him backward and imposing his will.  This is important because it puts the outside linebacker (yellow circle) out of position as he is now walled off from making a play (green line in the bottom image).


Going over to the right side now.  One of the middle linebackers has taken a really poor angle (red circle with arrow).  He takes the outside, possibly because he thinks this will be a perimeter run due to the fullback and pulling guard both going wide.  Had he taken the inside lane, this run probably gets stopped for a short gain of a few yards falling forward or even for no gain.  Instead, this linebacker gets walled off himself due to poor positioning (green line in the bottom image).


Buck Allen hits the hole hard.  The blocks are good and you can see the alley he has in the top image.  Now the only player in position to make any sort of stop is the corner who has rolled up top (red circle and arrow on bottom image).  The corner comes crashing down now.


However, the corner takes a poor angle.  He crashes inside (red arrow) which allows Buck Allen to simply sidestep him towards the outside (yellow arrow).  Had the corner played more of a contain or as a “force” player, he had help coming from the backside (two players circled in red on the bottom image).



These were two picture perfect examples of power running plays by USC and by Buck Allen.  Both show great blocking and execution to get to the second level players.  Both also show how Coach Sarkisian has melded concepts to spread the defense out horizontally by having the threat of the swing pass while also running the ball with power.

A Look at Two USC Offensive Plays at Stanford

This post will take a look at two key offensive plays in USC’s upset win on the road against Stanford.  We will look at Buck Allen’s 50 yard run and we will also look at a key 3rd down catch by Nelson Agholor.  Both these plays set up field goals which were the deciding factor in the game.

Buck Allen’s Run

Click here for a video of the play (you can use the refresh button to start the video again at the start of the play).

Buck Allen’s run comes on 1st and 10 on the USC 34 yard line.  There is 3:23 left in the 3rd quarter with USC trailing 10-7.  The run comes after three consecutive complete passes by USC to start the drive (adding the previous drive and it would make five consecutive passes by USC).

First, let’s look at the offensive play diagram.



The defense is lined up in a nickel front, probably due to the recent passing by USC.  The Defensive Ends are in the 5 technique (lined up in the gaps outside of our Tackles) and the Defensive Tackles are in the 2i technique on the strong side (shaded on the inside shoulder of our Left Guard) and the 3 technique on the weak side (in the gap between our RG and RT.

The meat of the play is in the blocking scheme and assignments.  The Tight End takes on the Defensive End nearest him and attempts to force him inward.  The Left Tackle double teams the Defensive Tackle alongside the Left Guard before he moves on to the next level and goes after the Linebacker.  The Center and the Right Tackle double team the other Defensive Tackle before our Right Tackle moves on and roams for another block to make (he goes after the Free Safety, but doesn’t have the speed to get to him for a block).  The Right Guard pulls across the formation, making this a “Power” running play.  The Right Guard moves across and goes to the outside of the Tight End, who is forcing his man inside.  The RG is now the lead blocker and will go after whoever is the greatest threat to the RB.  The RB will simply follow the lead block and make cuts as necessary.

On the outside, the left WR fakes a slant so that he can get inside leverage on the CB before blocking him.  On the right hand side, the TV angle never showed what those receivers were doing.  Based on the brief view of how the corners react to them, my best guess is that they did a decoy bubble screen look, which drew the CBs closer to them (and away from the running play).

Now let us look at some still images as the play progresses to see how this all played out.


This is how USC lines up presnap when they approach the line of scrimmage.  However, Kessler sees something and audibles out.



After the audible, the noticeable change is that we’ve flipped the RB’s position from the left to the right.  The audible may have been switching the play up to the running play or it may have been mirroring the play.  Hard to tell for sure.



After the snap, at the handoff merge point, you can see the two double teams happening on the offensive line (circled).  The Right Guard pulls behind these blocks.



The pulling guard now goes for the hole and looks for the greatest threat.  At this point, the greatest threat appears to be the Defensive End that the Tight End is blocking (circled).  The Left Tackle moves off from his double team and moves on to block the linebacker (red arrow).  The Strong Safety reads run and comes crashing down to the perimeter (yellow arrow).



The Tight End actually does a fine job taking out the Defensive End by pushing him inside.  The pulling guard now must change his direction for the new greatest threat which is the unblocked linebacker (red arrow).  The Left Tackle has already engaged the other linebacker at the second level.  The Strong Safety continues to crash down hard on the perimeter (yellow arrow).



Buck Allen sees the fast approaching Strong Safety on the perimeter (yellow arrow), so he cuts back inside (red arrow).



After making the cut, Allen has a very nice running lane.  The Strong Safety has effectively run himself out of the play.  Both linebackers are blocked.  The linebacker that was being blocked by the Left Tackle has over-pursued the original perimeter run and is now in poor position to defend the cutback.



Buck Allen easily makes it through the running lane.  The Free Safety is now crashing down on him at full speed.



Allen uses the Free Safety’s momentum against him by making a last second cut back to the outside.  The Free Safety cannot shift his weight fast enough resulting in a very weak tackle that Allen easily breaks through.  From there, it is green grass until the corners can catch up to him from the other side of the field.

Agholor’s Pass Play

Click here for the video.

Now let’s look at Agholor’s pass play.  Agholor’s play comes on a 3rd and 4 on the USC 31 yard line.  There is 5:10 left in the game with the game tied 10-10.  The pass comes after four consecutive running plays by USC to start the drive.

On this play, let us first look at how the Stanford Defense wanted to attack our front line compared to how we blocked it


Stanford’s plan was to send in a blitz with six players rushing the passer with heavy pressure coming from the strong side.  Three pass rushers would come in from the strong side edge, forcing either the TE or the RB to pick them up.  (A note that I am not entirely certain on the pass rush for the linebacker directly across from the Tight End.  To me, his initial steps and how the defense in general treats the Tight End suggests to me that he was in a pass rush, but more on this later.)

Each offensive lineman picked up the closest rusher as they formed the pocket.  Unfortunately, most of the blockers seem to get overwhelmed by the Stanford rush on this play.  The running back reads the blitz and ends up rolling to the left to help with the heavy pass rush.

The interesting aspect of this play is the Tight End.  The Tight End is running a route, but on the snap of the ball, he gives the linebacker across from him a huge shove and sends him reeling.  From here, it looks like the linebacker is disrupted so much by this push that he breaks off from pass rush and tries to defend the Tight End man to man.  It is possible that the linebacker was supposed to press the Tight End at the line and then play man to man with him rather than pass rush, but then the play of the defenders behind him don’t make much sense if this is the case, so I’m assuming the linebacker broke off from his pass rush after being driven backward a yard.  Even more on this later.

Let’s take a look at the passing routes and how the defense defends it.


It appears that the defense is running a variant of man to man coverage with a single high safety.  The three defenders off the line of scrimmage play the trips to the left in man to man but their coverage responsibilities are based on how the routes break.  Trips coverage can be tough to cover man to man since there is a lot of potential crossing going on, which leads to potential mix-ups or defenders running into each other.  You can also have offensive players who will rub or screen off each other as well.  Rather than have each defender assigned to a single man to follow in this mess, they each take a receiver after the routes break.  The outermost defender takes the outermost breaking route, the middle defender takes the middle route, and the weak side defender takes any crossing inside routes.

Now for the offensive side of the ball.  The lone receiver to the right’s full route isn’t showed on TV, but my guess is he runs a hitch probably to the first down marker’s depth.  As noted earlier, the Tight End jams the defender across from him before breaking out on his route.  It appears he is trying to run a seam or slant after jamming the defender, but he gets bumped multiple times and is forced inward.  The outside receiver crosses and runs a shallow in and is probably the outlet receiver.  The inner receiver, Agholor (shown in red), crosses underneath the other receiver and the Tight End, faking a wheel route.  However, about two yards past the line of scrimmage, Agholor cuts back inside on a slant route where he catches the ball.

Now let us look at some still images as the play progresses to see how this all played out.


Here is the look presnap.  Stanford shows pressure with six defenders on the line backed up by three more defenders backing them up.



At the snap of the ball, the Tight End engages with the defender across from him (circled).



The Tight End drives the defender back about a yard.  The Right Guard gets beat pretty bad at this point (circled).  I think he played a little bit flat footed off the snap which allowed the defender to get past and around him.  The other offensive linemen are getting driven back as well.



The defender that the Tight End has driven back decides to cover the Tight End man to man.  This leaves the Tight End now double covered with both defenders awkwardly playing him.  They aren’t bracketing him or anything of the sort.  The whole thing looked confused and broken down to me as they’re both jostling with him and taking outside leverage, which is why I think one of them was supposed to pass rush but aborted it.

Agholor is going towards the outside and is still behind the line of scrimmage.



Agholor crosses the line of scrimmage and is showing an outside route (red arrow).  The defender takes outside leverage in response.  Also note that the Right Guard has been completely beat at this point and the Defensive Lineman has an unblocked route straight to Kessler.



Agholor breaks inward quickly, putting the defender out of position since he has outside leverage.



The defender reacts to the inside break of Agholor, but it is too late at this point.  Kessler is already throwing the ball on the inside breaking route.  Not a moment too soon as he is about to get hit hard.



The ball is in the air here and it is wide open.



Agholor catches it with the defender still trying to catch up.



Agholor makes the Safety miss on a tackle by sidestepping him and continues on before getting tackled from behind.


Both of these plays were pivotal to USC’s victory against Stanford.  The long run lead to us getting within field goal range and the pass converted a first down to keep the drive alive before another field goal that decided the game.  Of course, the Defense played phenomenally and they put us in the position to win this game.  If I have time, I might take a look at a couple key defensive plays from this game as well, but that may have to wait until the bye week.

2013 USC Passing Heat Map

Now that we have broken down the running game with last week’s post, this post is going to take a look at the passing game.  We will look at the passing game by analyzing the Passing Heat Map (I will admit that I stole the idea of this post when I was reading this great article posted on Grantland).  A heat map is a visual representation of data that we gather and can be very useful for finding the “hot spots.”  In our case, I gathered and plotted passing information from the 2013 football season and we will swap around different data sets to see what we can find.

Completed Passes

First, let’s look at the most obvious Passing Heat Map: passes complete vs incomplete vs intercepted.  The diagram below represents all 392 passes that I tracked last season (not nearly as much data as the 19,000 passes tracked in the Grantland article…and my tracking isn’t nearly as precise/accurate as ESPN’s Stats and Information Group).  Each dot represents one pass: red is a completed pass, blue incomplete, and green intercepted.  The red line at near the bottom represents the line of scrimmage with the yard markers showing the distance relative to the line of scrimmage.  The dot represents the position that the throw was to, so it does not account for yards after catch or anything of that sort.  The two grey vertical bands on the left and right serve as markers to where the numbers on the field are.  You can click on any of the diagrams to view a larger version.


As can be seen here, the majority of passes are short throws.  68.8% of passes are thrown within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.  Only 11.5% of passes are deeper than 20 yards.  These numbers fall in line with what Grantland found in the NFL.

USC also favored the right side of the field when passing.  47.6% of passes are outside the right hash mark while 29.9% of passes are outside the left hash mark.  The remaining 22.5% of passes were between the hashes.

Here is the field broken down into different passing zones.  The white percentages represents the percentage of passes thrown to that zone.  This is also represented by the size of the circle.  The colored percentages represent the completion percentages for that zone..



It is first very apparent the favored are of attack being the short right passes.  Quick outs, hitches, flats, and swing passes dominate the right side in last year’s offense.

The completion rate is highest nearest the line of scrimmage and diminishes as passes get further from center.  Because of the diminishing completion rate (and also probably a factor of OLine protection as well), there have been few deep attempts.  There is also oddly a surprising lack of attempts made towards the intermediate passing zones on the left side of the field.

Completion percentages were highest between the hashes with a 70.5% completion rate.  The right side of the field had a higher completion rate (68.8%) than the left side (57.3%).

Breakdown by Coach

Let’s look at the breakdown by head coach.  It is worthwhile to note that Coach Helton only had one game as head coach.  He was also was Offensive Coordinator during Coach Orgeron’s run, so he had a hand in the play calling there as well.


Coach Kiffin had the highest percentage of passes that went behind the line of scrimmage (29.7% for Kiffin, 25.8% for Helton, and 18.9% for Orgeron).  Both Kiffin and Orgeron had about 70% of their passes within 10 yards (Helton was 54.8%, but that may have just been the specific game plan against Fresno St).  For deep passes beyond 20 yards, Helton had the highest percentage with 22.6% (again, possibly the specific gameplan), followed by Orgeron was at 13.5%, and Kiffin at 11.7%.

It is also worthwhile to note that Coach Orgeron was much more open to utilizing the area of the field beyond 20 yards and between the numbers (the deep middle) while Coach Kiffin avoided this space.  Even Coach Helton had more attempts (5) in the deep middle than Kiffin (2) with 1/5th the amount of games.

Breakdown by Quarterback

Let’s just do a quick comparison between Kessler and the limited attempts that Wittek had based on zone.  The diagram below will show the percentage of passes that went to each zone as well as the completion percentage.  Kessler’s numbers are in red while Wittek’s numbers are in blue.


Kessler was much more likely to throw the short routes (69.8% of passes within 10 yards compared to 51.9% for Wittek).  Wittek was slightly more likely to throw the deep ball (14.8% of Wittek’s throws beyond 20 yards compared to 11.4% of Kessler’s).  There is a combination of things going on with that aspect though.  Wittek was mostly put in for end game situations, so it was unlikely for him to have to throw the deep ball or else the divide may have been greater.  Wittek is known for his arm though, especially compared to Kessler.  Kessler actually had a greater completion percentage on the deeper balls (33% completion rate for Kessler compared to 20% for Wittek).  This may have to also do with the 2nd string receivers possibly playing for Wittek.

 Breakdown by Receiver

Now let us look at the receiving end of the passes.  I tracked the receiver on completed passes only, so these are receptions rather than intended receivers.  I have grouped it generally by position to prevent the diagram from being too cluttered.  I have left Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor separate as they were the primary targets of our passing game.  By concentrating on particular colored dots, you can faintly see the passing trees and primary routes emerge.


Looking at Marqise Lee’s red dots, you can see the groupings of routes that he has caught.  On the left side are a number of bubble screens caught behind the line of scrimmage.  Not nearly as many bubble screens to the right, possibly indicating that Lee more often lined up on the left unless he was in the slot.  In the short to intermediate depths, on the left side moving towards the middle, you can see the slant, post, and drag routes.  On the right side near the sidelines, you can see the out routes and hitches.

Now let us look at Nelson Agholor’s blue dots.  There are some hints of bubble screens and jailbreak screens on the right side of center.  For the short passes, to the middle of the field are a number of drag routes and slants.  On the outside, Agholor utilized the sidelines quire effectively.

Looking at the running backs’ pink dots shows a couple routes that are to be expected from that position.  Behind the line of scrimmage are a number of screen passes found near or between the hash marks.  Behind the line of scrimmage to the right are check down swing passes and ahead of the line of scrimmage are check down passes to the flats.

The Tight End routes in cyan are fairly expected as well.  Mostly passes to the flats and short middle routes which are likely hitches.  The deeper passes that are 10-20 yards down the field are seam routes where the TE sneaks behind the linebackers as a downfield threat.  I believe the random dot 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage was Kessler was just getting rid of the ball due to pressure and just threw the ball at the TE’s feet.

What Down is it?

Now let’s take a quick look at the heat map based on the down.


Not too surprisingly, most of the downfield passes were made on 1st or second downs.  These downs also had a decent amount of short passes, typically to help make 3rd downs very manageable.  3rd downs are particularly interesting as they tend to stay within about 15 yards, so most likely the pass is made to the distance needed to convert.  There are a couple down field passes on 3rd down and those are generally up the left sidelines.

What about Play Action?

Now let us take a couple of quick looks at diagrams based on various strategies and situations.  Here is the passing heat map for when USC utilized play action or not.


Most people think of play action as opportunities to take the deep pass.  However, a lot of the benefits for play action come in the intermediate distances and in the flats as it freezes the linebackers.  Many of the play action passes are grouped short and to the right.  A good portion of these passes are probably a TE or FB leaking out from the backfield and getting open in the flats.

Overall, the percentage of short passes decreased with play action, but they were still the majority of passes.  61.9% of play action passes were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage (compared to 71.3% without play action).  25.7% of play action passes went between 10 and 20 yards, which is a decent increase from the 17.5% of non-play action passes in this area.  Deep passes were fairly similar with 12.4% of play action passes and 11.3% of non-play action passes going beyond 20 yards.

Play action passes were also more likely to go to the right side of the field, with 56.6% of play action passes outside of the right hash (compared to 43.6% of non-play action passes).  This isn’t too surprising since our QBs are both right handed, so a rollout to the right is easier to execute.

How Does Formation Change Things?

I broke it down by five offensive formations: Ace, I-Formation, Empty, Shotgun, and Pistol.  Shotgun and Pistol are based on the Quarterback’s alignment.  In both these formations, the Quarterback is back from the line of scrimmage with a potential running back next to him (Shotgun) or behind him (Pistol).  If the Quarterback is under center (at the line of scrimmage), Ace is a formation with a single running back, I-formation is with two running backs, and Empty is no running backs.  Now let’s look at how passes are made based on these formations.


On first glance, the majority of passes came out of the Shotgun formation, since the heat map is riddled with pink.  This is in fact quite true.  62.1% of all of USC’s passes came out of the Shotgun.  This both surprising and not given that USC spent about an equal amount of time in Shotgun, Ace, and I-Formation.  This is because while in Shotgun, USC passed the ball 86.7% of the time (compared to 25% of the time for both Ace and I-Formation).  Not too surprising since Shotgun is a pass heavy formation.

One interesting aspect of I-Formation is it seems to have a lot of passes to the right within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage.  If you’ll reference back to the play action diagram, they share a striking similarity in that zone.  I venture to guess that this is due to the I-Formation being a perfect formation to run play action out of, since it is typically a run-heavy formation.  Simply do play action then dump the ball off to a TE or the FB in the flats.  This has been a strong play for USC all the way back through the Carroll era.

The Defensive Formation

Now to analyze how USC’s passing attack was dictated by the opposing defense.  We’ll start by looking at the defensive front and work our way into the secondary.  The defensive front is the alignment of the defensive players within the box.  These players dictate how the run is defended and can give a clue into how the defense will react in general.  The major formations that we faced were the 4-3, 3-4, 5-2, nickel, and dime.  For the purposes of this article, the 4-3, 3-4, and 5-2 are similar in that they all have seven defenders in the box.  The nickel removes one player, leaving six in the box while the dime removes two players and leaves five in the box.  These players outside of the box are now better suited for pass defense.


One interesting thing that I note from this heat map is against the 3-4 defense.  There is a distinct lack of deep throws against the 3-4 when you compare it against the 4-3 and 5-2 defenses.  I am unsure about why this is and if there is an overall strategic reason for this, if it was dictated by the teams that we happened to play against that utilized a 3-4, or if it was just an anomaly.

Unsurprisingly, against the Nickel and Dime packages, our passes tended to stay closer to the line of scrimmage.  Those extra defensive backs seemed to do their jobs well preventing deeper passes.  Against the Nickel, there is a somewhat noticeable uptick in intermediate passes between the hashes, likely due to the lessened number of linebackers becoming spread thinner.

Watch the Corners

Moving further into the secondary, we have the cornerback alignment.  The way I tracked this was based on the alignment relative to the intended receiver.  I classified loose coverage was when the defender was seven or more yards off from the receiver at the snap of the ball.  Tight or press coverage was when the defender was within three yards of the receiver.  Passes to the running backs are omitted here as the secondary alignment doesn’t hold as much meaning in this context.


A good amount of the passes behind the line of scrimmage (bubble screens etc) were against loose or medium coverage.  This isn’t too surprising as this allows the best opportunity for your other players to get into their blocks and also gives the receiver space to make his moves.

There are also a number of deep passes against loose coverage.  On first thought, you might think that the purpose of loose coverage is to defend against the deep ball, which would imply that fewer deep passes would go to that depth.  However, the loose coverage itself might imply that the corner knows there is no over-the-top help by a safety, which is why he is playing loosely.  This could lead to some opportunities in the deep pass.

Against tight coverage, there is a good deal of passing to the sidelines.  Most of these are probably just streaks right up the sidelines, creating a footrace between the receiver and the defender in tight coverage.  The patterns crossing the middle also appear to take the shape of slant routes.  This combination is interesting as it could imply utilizing both the slant and the sluggo (slant-and-go) up the sideline against tight coverage, forcing the defender to make quick turns on his hips to try to keep up.

Where’s the Safety?

Moving even further back is the safety alignment.  One of the QB’s pre-snap (and post-snap) reads is determining if the safeties are “even” or “odd.”  This means counting how much deep safety support there is on the field.  It is typical to face either one or two high safeties.  However, occasionally a defense will crash all the safeties down near the box in run support or to blitz.  It is also possible to see them drop three or even four guys high up top in more of a prevent defense look.   I tracked the number of high safeties at the snap of the ball and charted them here.


Against one safety, there is more of a tendency towards the sidelines as you move further away from the line of scrimmage.  This is usually because the safety is roaming the deep middle.  Compare that against two high safeties and there is more of a cluttering in the intermediate middle of the field.  This is because in a single high safety look, there can often be a defender roaming the intermediate middle zone under the high safety.

Man vs Zone

Here is a breakdown of the passes made depending on man or zone coverage by the defense.


Man coverage does appear to take the majority on a couple areas of the field including the deep right sideline and the area behind the line of scrimmage on the left.  Zone coverage has other areas such as the intermediate part of the field outside the left hash as well as the middle and right passes behind the line of scrimmage.  Note that many of these passes behind the line of scrimmage in the middle or right side of the field are to the RBs, so they may be checkdowns after the receivers could not get into open areas from the zone coverage.  Overall, passes against either man or zone coverages were fairly balanced around the field.

As a side note, Kessler had a slightly higher completion percentage against the zone (68.3%) compared to against man coverage (61.6%).

Bring the Blitz

Finally, let’s look at the last breakdown for passing heat map that I will do today: passing against the blitz and passing against max coverage.  A typical pass rush is four defenders going after the QB.  This leaves seven defenders in pass coverage.  Bringing extra pass rushers can force a bad throw, but it can also leave the field open for passes due to the reduced coverage.  On the flip side, dropping extra defenders into pass coverage can leave the QB with no open targets, but the reduced pressure can give the QB and receivers enough time to find a gap in the defense.  Let’s take a look.


Against max pass coverage, meaning at least eight defenders defending the pass (leaving three or fewer pass rushers), USC typically threw the ball short.  It was usually just a check down, which is fairly expected since most receivers will be double covered.

Now for the blitz.  Against a +1 blitz (five pass rushers, six pass defenders), USC still spread the ball around the field fairly well.  There were a number passes up either sideline but also kept it around the short middle of the field as well.  The +1 blitz is interesting because it is five pass rushers against at least five blockers in the offensive line, so it is fairly balanced still.  For the +2 or more blitz, there are at least six pass rushers, which means that either the running back and/or a TE must block or there will be a free rusher.  Against the +2 blitz, you see fewer passes to the short middle of the field, mostly because the RBs and TEs are likely tied up in blocking.  There are, however, a number of deep passes against the +2 blitz.  If the pass rush fails to get to the QB, it opens up for one-on-one situations deep since there is most likely no safety support.

Let’s look at completion percentages in these situations.  With the standard seven pass defenders, USC completed 71.4% of passes.  With max coverage, this increased to 73.2%, so Kessler can be patient and wait for his receivers to get open or to check down.  Against a +1 blitz, USC completed 60.2% of passes, so noticeably down.  Against the +2 blitz, USC was down to 53.1% completion rate.  The blitzes were fairly effective in that sense.


That’s all I have for now.  I did gather data for specific coverages that were used, but did not really have the time to create the diagrams for those.  Maybe I will still create them if I have time later on, but I would expect that this will be my last post before the 2014 season starts.  I look forward to see how this data changes under Coach Sark.  I hope you all found this data useful and interesting.  I also hope to see you all return for more analysis of the 2014 USC Football Season.

A Look Back at USC’s 2013 Running Game Tendencies

First, a big welcome back as Football Season approaches! I think we’re all very excited to see what the 2014 season brings with new HC Sarkisian.

I’m going to start this season with a look back at last season. I’ve been hard at work lately reviewing all the games from last season, primarily looking at the passing game. However, the passing game analysis will take place in the next post. This post is a little bit of a teaser and will do an in depth analysis of the running game.  We will analyze how USC attacked each gap, starting with a quick explanation of running gaps then breaking it down by coach and players.

A Quick Explanation of Gaps

The running game is all about the gaps. The offense is trying to open up gaps while the defense is trying to plug them up. A gap is formed by the space between two offensive blockers, typically offensive linemen. There is a natural naming convention for the gaps, as can be seen below.


The gaps are lettered starting from the center and moving outward.  The “A” gap is the space between the Center and the Offensive Guard.  The “B” gap is the space between the Offensive Guard and the Offensive Tackle.  The “C” gap is between the Offensive Tackle and the Tight End (if there is no Tight End, then the “C” gap is the perimeter from the Tackle to the sideline).  The “D” gaps are shown greyed out because they are optionally there based on if there is a Tight End in the formation or not.

Generally, the “A” and “B” gaps are interior runs while the “C” and “D” gaps are perimeter runs.

How USC Attacked Each Gap

Now let’s look at the statistics of last season. Below is a diagram breaking down the number of runs through each gap last season.



USC slightly favored the left side when running the ball with 53% of the run going to that side. USC also favored running to the inside rather than the outside (again with 53% of the runs going inside).

In addition to what is shown on the diagram, USC ran the ball towards the strong side of the formation on 48% of running plays and towards the weak side on 28% of running plays (with the remaining 24% having no strength side of the formation, or a balanced formation).

Now let us take a quick look at the average yards gained rushing through each gap.


The left “B” gap averaged the highest gains.  Other than the left “B” gap, the right side of the line averaged higher gains than the left side.  The left “A” gap yielded the lowest yardage production with only 3.6 yards per carry through that gap.  Strong side runs averaged 4.9 yards per carry while weak side runs averaged 6.5 yards per carry.

How Each USC Coach Attacked Each Gap

Let’s break it down by coach. We’ll use percentage of run plays to normalize against the differing number of games each coach called plays for.  [Update 8/19: It is worth explicitly pointing out that Coach Helton was the Offensive Coordinator during Coach Orgeron’s tenure, so he still had a hand in the offensive playcalling during that time.  His sample size is also small for the portion called out here as it is only for one game.]



Coach Kiffin tended to favor both “C” gaps as well as the left “A” gap, but had a fairly decent balance across each gap. Coach Kiffin has the lowest percentage of “D” gap runs but the highest percentage of “C” gap runs. This could either signify that Kiffin did not prefer to run to the extreme perimeter, did not utilize the tight end formations as often as the other coaches, or ran towards the weak side of an unbalanced formation utilizing tight ends. My guess is either the first or second explanation as Kiffin ran the ball towards the weak side of the formation only 25% of the time.

Coach Orgeron was fairly balanced between left and right runs (52% to the left, 48% to the right), however when he did run to the right, it would typically go to the right “A” gap. His tendency was to run the ball to the right “A” gap or to the left side of center as we see fewer runs to the right “B”, “C”, and “D” gaps. Coach Orgeron did have the best balance between strongside and weakside of the three USC head coaches with 47% of runs going to the strong aide and 31% going to the weak side.

Coach Helton very much preferred the left “A” gap with 26% of all his runs going through this gap. He had the lowest percentage of runs going through the left “B” gap and the right “C” gap. Coach Helton was also the least balanced with 76% of his runs going to the strong side of the field and only 17% going to the weak side.

How Each USC Player Attacked Each Gap

Now let’s break it down by player rather than coach. Again, these numbers are by percentage to normalize against the number of carries each player had.  The running backs are ordered from left to right in the legend based on the overall number of carries they had last season.


Tre Madden had the majority of his runs inside (56%) compared to outside (44%).  Most of those inside runs went through the “A” gaps.  Tre Madden had the lowest percentage of “D” gap runs of all running backs.  45% of Madden’s runs went to the strong side while 23% went to the weak side.

Javorius “Buck” Allen had a similar percentage of inside runs (54%) as Tre Madden.  However, Buck Allen generally had better balance between each gap that he attacked when compared to Madden, including better “D” gap perimeter running.  56% of Allen’s runs went to the strong side while 26% went to the weak side.

Again, Silas Redd had a similar percentage of inside runs (56%) as both Tre Madden and Buck Allen.  However, Silas Redd has an interesting distribution that isn’t quite as balanced as the others.  Redd was sent through the right “A” gap much more than the left “A” gap.  For the “B” and “C” gaps, Redd went through the left side much more often than the right side.  The “D” gaps were really the only balanced gaps for Redd.  Redd had good balance for strength of field with 48% of his runs going strong side and 32% going weak side.

Justin Davis and Ty Issac didn’t get as many carries as the other leading running backs, but it is important to see their role.  Unlike the other main running backs, both Davis and Issac were perimeter runners with 54% of Davis’s runs and 59% of Issac’s runs going to the outside.  Issac had the most “D” gap runs of all backs.  Davis was the most balanced for strength of field with 35% of runs going strong side and 30% going weak side.  This also means he had the most runs within a balanced formation.  Issac was the most unbalanced for strength of field with 56% of his runs going strong side and only 22% going weak side.

Now let’s look at the average number of yards gained by each running back based on the gap.


Madden had the most success running either to the right “D” gap or running to the left “B” gap.  The right “D” gap was the one that Madden ran the fewest times to, but he averaged 9.2 yards per carry.  When running to the strong side, Madden averaged 4.4 yards per carry compared to 6.1 yards per carry going to the weak side.

Of all the running backs, Buck Allen was the most successful running out of the left “D”, left “B”, and the right “A” gaps.  Surprisingly, given his success in the right “A” gap, Allen had some of the worst production coming out of the left “A” gap.  Allen also had very poor production in the left “C” gap.  Allen averaged 6.7 yards when running to the strong side, but only 3.0 yards when running to the weak side and is the only running back who averaged more yards going to the strong side compared to the weak side.

Silas Redd was generally middle of the pack in each gap, but he struggled running the “B” gaps on either side when compared to all the other running backs.  Redd was fairly balanced in terms of strength of field with a 4.3 yards per carry average running to the strong side and a 4.6 yards per carry average running to the weak side.

Davis had much more success running to the left compared to the right.  He had strong success on the left “B” and “C” gaps and was fairly average running through the other gaps.  Surprisingly, Davis averaged only 3.4 yards per carry when running to the strong side but had a group best 12.6 yards per carry running to the weak side.

The exact opposite of Davis, Ty Issac was much more successful running to the right compared to the left.  The left “A”, “C”, and “D” gaps were group worsts with the left “B” gap being group second worst.  However, Issac had a group best by far for both the right “B” and “C” gaps.  The right “D” gap also had great success.  Like Davis, Ty Issac had a low 3.4 yards per carry running to the strong side but a high 9.8 yards per carry running to the weak side.

Coming Up Next…

This concludes my analysis of the 2013 running game.  My next post, which should come closer to this coming weekend, will take an in depth look at the passing game.  We’ll look at the passing heat map for a number of situations.  I hope that after I finish going over the data that I’ve compiled I’ll have some interesting insights to share.  I look forward to finishing that post up!

An Analysis of Coach Sarkisian’s Comparative Statistics at UW

I always like to look at “comparative statistics” to get a better gauge at how a team is doing.  This post will look at Coach Steve Sarkisian’s comparative stats over his years at Washington.  First, we will define what a comparative stat is.  Then, we will look at both offensive and defensive stat categories from year to year, starting in 2008 up until this season.

What is a Comparative Stat?

A lot of basic statistic comparison done in football is the pure numbers.  For instance, USC averaged 392.3 yards per game of total offense, or #79 in the nation.  It is a good basic measure of offensive capability.  However, it doesn’t take into account things such as strength of schedule.  Playing a bunch of bad teams will inherently boost your numbers, making your team look better than it actually is.  On defense, you can also run into a similar issue where playing a couple teams that primarily run the ball causes your pass defense numbers to look better than they actually are (since you are not “allowing” as many passing yards).

A comparative stat takes it a little bit further to normalize these types of situations.  When looking at comparative stats, you will look at how your team did compared to what the opponent typically allows.  For instance, USC gained 192 yards rushing against Hawaii.  Seems reasonable enough on the surface.  However, Hawaii’s rushing defense allows an average of 213.6 rushing yards per game.  This means that in comparative stats, USC had a -21.6 yard margin in rushing offense.  Put another way, USC did below average against Hawaii rushing the ball.  You can then average these numbers over a season and you start to get a better picture on how “good” or “bad” a team is in each category, normalized based on strength of schedule and other factors.

How we’ll look at Sark

What I wanted to do was look at the comparative stats for Washington over all of Coach Sarkisian’s tenure.  Much has been written and dissected about his win-loss record over this time period, but I wanted to see if he generally improved his numbers throughout the years or if they stayed stagnant (similar to his win-loss record).

In the sections below, we will look at a line chart which will depict the comparative stats margin for each category from the 2008 to 2013 seasons.  The reason I included 2008 was to show improvement in the transition from Willingham to Sarkisian. Each chart will have a trend line which shows the overall trend from 2008 to 2013.  I also color code each chart based on Offensive and Defensive Coordinators, so you can tell when notable coaching changes were made.


Coach Sark is an offensive coach, which is why I was most interested in his offensive comparative stats.  Before we jump in, I want to describe the color code for the offensive charts.  In all offensive charts,  the red segment shows the switch from Willingham at HC and Tim Lappano at OC in 2008 to Sark at HC and Doug Nussmeier at OC.  The blue segment from 2009 to 2011 is Doug Nussmeier’s time at OC before he started coaching at Alabama.  The green segment from 2012 to 2013 is the time period with Eric Kiesau as OC.  It is worthwhile to note the OC during Sark’s tenure, but remember that Sark was calling the plays as the head coach and ultimately had final say in the offensive gameplan.  It is also important to note that Sark completely revamped the UW offense in 2013 to feature a no-huddle spread offense, so keep an eye on how that changes their comparative stat margins.

First, let’s look at rushing offense.  The first chart we’ll look at is rushing offense.

Sark_Comp_Rushing_OffenseAs can be seen here, Sark took a rushing attack that was averaging nearly 32 yards below average and brought it to about average in his first year.  The trend continued improving into 2010.  The rushing attack started to decline over the next two years and fell below average again in 2012.  However, after revamping the offense, UW’s rushing attack gains almost 60 yards more per game than the opposing defense typically allows.

Now let’s look at yards per carry.

Sark_Comp_Rushing_YPCYards per play is an important statistic to look at when looking at no-huddle offenses.  This is because these teams typically get more offensive snaps than average, which leads to inflated yards.  The yards per carry numbers matches up pretty well with curve we saw in the rushing offense chart.

Now let’s look at passing offense.

Sark_Comp_Passing_OffenseIn passing offense, a large gain was made in the first year under Sark.  The second year showed a regression, but this regression was overshadowed by the gains made in the 3rd year.  However, 2012 showed a dramatic drop in passing production as the OC coaching spot was changed.  This drop was mitigated by the change up in offense in 2013.

Now let’s look at yards per attempt, yards per completion, and completion percentage.

Sark_Comp_Passing_YPASark_Comp_Passing_YPCSark_Comp_Passing_CompPercAll these charts are interlinked.  The yards per completion chart is a compilation between the yards per attempt and the completion percentage charts.  One interesting thing to note is 2010, when the completion percentage dropped quite a bit and a corresponding drop in yards per attempt, but yards per completion rose.  This could mean that UW was more aggressive in their passing attack that year, attempting deeper throws and therefore completing fewer of them.

Now let us look at total offense.


Total offense shows a very large jump in Sark’s first year where it generally stayed static before regressing in 2012 under new OC Kiesau.  However, 2013 showed a dramatic boost in offensive production with the installation of the new spread offense.

Time for yards per play on offense.

Sark_Comp_Offense_YPPYards per play shows a similar chart.  However, it is worthwhile to note here that the yards per play between 2011 and 2013 are similar, yet 2013 had many more yards per game (from the last chart).  This illustrates how a no-huddle offense will skew the numbers.

Finally, let’s look at scoring offense.

Sark_Comp_Scoring_OffenseScoring offense follows a similar peaks and valleys as the other charts.  UW’s offense was at its best in 2013, scoring almost 8 more points than the opponent typically allowed.


Now it is time to look at the defensive side of the ball.  In the defensive charts, the red segment shows the switch from Wililngham at HC and Ed Donatell at DC to Sark at HC and Nick Holt as DC.  The blue segment from 2009 to 2011 is the era with Nick Holt as DC.  Nick Holt was fired as DC after the 2011 season and Sark brought in Justin Wilcox, who is represented by the green segment in the 2012 to 2013 seasons.  It is important to note that for defensive comparative stats, more negative is better (meaning you are allowing less yards than your opponent is typically gaining).

First, we’ll look at rushing defense.


Rushing defense improved dramatically in Sark’s first year.  Still, that improvement brought UW only to about average, with only 1.6 fewer yards allowed on the ground than average.  The rushing defense progressively got worse under DC Nick Holt, and again improved once Justin Wilcox was brought in (again, only to average).  It stayed as an average rushing defense in Wilcox’s two years.

Let’s look at yards per carry defense.

Sark_Comp_Rushing_YPC_DefenseAgain, it is important to look at yards per play for 2013 with the installation of the no-huddle offense.  When you have a no-huddle offense, it means that the defense is on the field a lot longer which can inflate the yards allowed.  When looking at yards per carry defense, It has been pretty static since Sark has taken over.  UW hovered at around the same spot despite the DC change and despite the switch to the no-huddle offense.

Now let us look at passing defense.

Sark_Comp_Passing_DefenseSurprisingly, UW got worse on passing defense after their winless 2008 season.  All of the years under Nick Holt had worse passing defense than under Willingham.  However, passing defense dramatically improved under DC Justin Wilcox and continued to improve from year 1 to year 2.

Now let’s look at yards per attempt, yards per completion, and completion percentage.

Sark_Comp_Passing_YPA_DefenseSark_Comp_Passing_YPC_DefenseSark_Comp_Passing_CompPerc_DefenseAll of these charts show a steady improvement from below average to above average.  There was spike in 2012 in yards per completion, which is notable.  This may be due to the change in style with DC Justin Wilcox.  It is notable that even though yards per completion rose in 2012, completion percentage dropped dramatically.

Now let’s look at total defense.

Sark_Comp_Total_DefenseTotal defense had a general downward trend as well.  2011 had a large spike, which was the year that DC Nick Holt was fired.  This spike was completely negated by Justin Wilcox coming in and further improving UW’s defensive performance.  It is somewhat surprising to see a total defense improvement in 2013 after the no-huddle offense was implemented.  Typically the total defensive yards suffer under no-huddle since the opposing offense just has more time with the ball which leads to more yards.

Now let’s look at yards per play defense.

Sark_Comp_Offense_YPP_DefenseAgain, UW continued to progress throughout the years, other than 2011.  The defense continued to improve under Justin Wilcox, with UW allowing 1 yard per play less than the opposing offense typically gained in 2013.

Finally, we look at scoring defense.

Sark_Comp_Scoring_DefenseScoring defense improved in Sark’s first year, but then steadily regressed under Nick Holt.  After Nick Holt was replaced with Justin Wilcox, the defense improved vastly and continued to improve from year 1 to year 2.


Coach Sarkisian had a five year run at UW.  During that time, he went through two OCs and two DCs.  Also in those five years, it seemed as if Sark had hit a bit of a ceiling on his season win total.  However, looking at each statistical category, there is a general improvement in the trendline for every single category.  The main areas that UW did not improve very much after Sark was brought in was yards per rush and rushing defense.  It will definitely be interesting to see how much of these stats carry over to Sark’s tenure at USC.

USC vs Stanford ’13 – A Look at Some Statistics

This post will look at some key statistics from the USC vs Stanford game.  We’ll look at the run vs pass play calling from both teams in a variety of angles.  Then we will look at some other interesting statistics for 3rd down conversions, rushing histograms, and yards per drive.

Play Calling

USC came into this game with a very strong running game and a good but somewhat inconsistent passing game.  Overall, USC called running plays 25 times (39%) and passing plays 39 times (61%) [Please note that I consider sack plays as passes, unlike the NCAA which considers it a run].  In the five games prior to Stanford that Coach Helton has been calling the plays, there were 169 runs (53%) and 148 passes (47%).  We passed the ball a lot more against Stanford than we typically have done.

First, let’s break down the play calling by USC based on down.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_RunVsPass_DownUSC ran the ball on 59% of their first downs.  This is a slight tick down from Helton’s previous games where he ran the ball on 70% of first downs.  From there, USC became very pass heavy.  Second down had nearly twice as many passes and runs and third down was almost exclusively passing plays.  In fact, our only “running” play on 3rd down was on the 3rd and 19 just before our game winning field goal.  This  was a designed Cody Kessler run which was called primary to center the ball.  For all intents and purposes, USC passed the ball exclusively on 3rd down.  This included passing on a 3rd and 1 and a 3rd and 3 (both incomplete).

For comparison’s sake, Helton has been exactly 50/50 on runs and passes on 2nd down prior to this game.  On third down, he has run the ball 22% of the time and passed 78% of the time.  For any third down that has been longer than a single yard, Helton has come out typically throwing (generally 70% or more passing plays).  This means that overall, Helton threw the ball more on every down compared to his usual tendencies.

Now let’s look at USC’s play calling by field position.  Please note that in the chart below, all “Goal to Go” plays are also counted in “Red Zone.”

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_RunVsPass_FieldPosUSC had the greatest discrepancy between runs and passes behind the 50 yard line.  With lots of room to work with and early in drives, USC would have more than double the amount of passes compared to runs.  Once we crossed midfield, USC began to run the ball more.  This is actually a bit opposite from what was typical of Helton.  Typically, Helton has a slight edge towards running behind midfield (56% running, 44% passing) and opens up the passing between midfield and the redzone (44% running, 56% passing).  The redzone and goal to go categories lined up generally with Helton’s tendencies with around 71% running in the redzone and 78% with goal to go.

Finally, let us look at the play calling based on quarter.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_RunVsPass_QuarterAs can be seen here, USC started and ended the game with a pretty good amount of balance.  Even the second quarter was pretty balanced as well.  The third quarter was when USC started flinging the ball around with nearly three times as many passes as runs.  For comparison’s sake, Helton has typically been very balanced in every quarter except with a lean towards the run in the 4th (likely to close out a game that we are winning).


USC had a 3rd down conversion rate of 29%.    Remove the 3rd down dive that Kesser took to center the ball for the game winning FG and we’re looking at 31%.  This is slightly under, but statistically in line with, Stanford’s average 3rd down defense this season which is 33%.

This becomes more interesting when we break up the 3rd downs based on distance.  USC was 0 for 2 on 3rd and short (three yards or less) and also 0 for 2 on 3rd and medium (four to six yards).  All of USC’s 3rd down conversions came on plays with seven or more yards to go.  In this category, USC was 4 for 10.  Remember that USC exclusively threw the ball on 3rd downs.  This hurt the ability to convert the short yardage situations consistently.  I don’t blame Helton for making this call as USC averaged only 0.9 yards per carry  in this game (remove the sacks and it increases to 1.6 yards per carry, which still isn’t great).  It is also worthwhile to note that 40% of USC’s runs were stopped for either no yards gained or negative yards.

On the flip side, Stanford had a 33% 3rd down conversion rate.  This included converting only 1 out of 3 on 3rd and short situations.  You would expect that Stanford, with their power run game, would dominate the 3rd and short conversions.  This is a testament to the strength of our defensive front as well as the aggressive pressure that DC Pendergast put (USC was often loading the line of scrimmage with up to six guys who were backed up by two or three linebackers.  This left single coverage on the receivers and only a single high safety up top).  More on this later.

Stanford was the most successful on 3rd and medium, with 2 out of 3 successful conversions.  This can be a funny distance to defend as there is the threat of both the run and the pass.  However, when USC was able to back Stanford up to 3rd and long, Stanford was 1 for 6 (17%).  USC was easily able to defend the clear passing situations by Stanford.

Other Notes

First let’s look at USC’s average distance to go versus average gain based on down.  [For this chart, I only included the 4th down attempt for 4th downs.  If you consider all 4th downs, the average distance to go was 7.78 yards.]

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_SCAvgDistVsGainThe interesting thing to note here is how much lower 2nd down is in terms of average gain.  I don’t really know why this is the case, but it was interesting to see.

For comparison, here is Stanford’s chart.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_StanAvgDistVsGainStanford had a great 2nd down push, but had a poor 3rd down push.  In fact, Stanford converted more 2nd downs (35%) than they did 3rd downs (33%).  If I were to guess, this is likely due to how USC played on defense.  So much emphasis was put on bottling up the power run game that runs would either be stopped for very little gain or would break through to the second level and gain chunks of yards (enough to convert).  In the former case, the stop would potentially leave Stanford in a 3rd and long situation that USC would excel at defending.  To illustrate this, let us look at Stanford’s rushing histogram.


As you can see here, Stanford had a lot of runs clumped in the 0-4 yards gained range.  However, there is a definite dip  in the 5-8 yard range before another grouping between 9-12 yards.  Finally, there were five runs which broke for 15+ yards.  I believe USC’s gameplan was built around a front line defense which would limit Stanford’s runs to around three yards with not much second line to help until they gained quite a bit.

There was one final statistic that I found quite interesting when breaking down this game.  7 out of 12 (58%) drives for Stanford failed to gain a single first down. (6 out of 11, or 55%, if you don’t count the final desperation play of the game).  This includes 5 out of 7 (71%) of their 2nd half drives (67% if you don’t count the last play drive).  Other than the initial TD drive to start the 2nd half, Pendergast adjusted well to the Stanford attack.  Here is a line chart showing the yards gained on each Stanford drive.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_StanfordDrivesNotice the downward trend line as the game progressed.  It is also worthwhile to mention that drive #9, the final spike for Stanford’s offense, ended in the interception by Bailey.


This game was definitely an interesting one to look at statistically.  You could see how OC Helton adjusted his gameplan to try to mitigate Stanford’s defensive strengths by going to the air (Stanford is ranked #3 in rushing defense, but #98 in passing defense).  You can also see how USC’s aggressive gameplan to stop the run at the line caused a decent amount of disruption, leading to 3rd and longs.  Both of these gameplans paid off in the end as they helped limit Stanford and ultimately win the game.