USC Offensive Formations

USC utilizes a pro-offense.  This entails a heavy dose of fullbacks and tight ends.  I have compiled up some numbers on the offensive formations that USC uses.  This post will look at the motion employed as well as the various formations that USC utilizes.


As a disclaimer, these are in no way official.  I usually jot down the formation while at the game in real time.  I do these to the best of my ability in recognizing the formation, but as I state in the “About Me” page, I am not a coach or anything of the sort.  With this in mind, I expect there to be a certain degree of error, but the numbers should be generally correct.  I do not look at personnel on the field, so if a Tight End lines up as a Wide Receiver, I will write him down as a WR.  I understand that much data is probably lost in doing this, but this is the first season in which I am attempting to track such data, so this is more of an experiment than anything else.

Also, I have compiled the numbers on all games other than the recent USC vs Oregon game.  There are a couple of reasons why Oregon has been omitted here.  First, if I continually try to add in the latest game’s data, I will never get this analysis done since the time it takes me to compile these particular stats.  Second, and probably more importantly, I simply didn’t jot down any numbers at the Oregon game.  I made the decision before the game to sit back and enjoy this contest against the #1 ranked Oregon Ducks.  Maybe at some point I will re-watch that game and compile the formation stats, but for now, I will apologize for the missing game.  Anyways, lets get on to the numbers.


Motion can be used in a number of ways.  It can be used to flip the strength side of the field, switching the alignment for the defense.  The defense must then either realign or switch up responsibilities, possibly creating a mismatch.  It can be used to give a player lateral momentum at the snap of the ball, which can give them a step or two advantage over their defender.  It can be used to force the defense to show its hand by looking for clues into how the defense adjusts based on the motion.  Either way, motion is used to give the offense hints and potential advantages.  So let us look at how much motion has been employed by USC.

As can be seen, motion was not used very much in the Hawaii game.  However, since then, motion has been used in about just about half of USC’s plays.  Against Washington, USC was motioning on a whopping 70% of their plays.

218 out of 489 plays (45%) that I have tracked have employed motion this season.

Formation by QB/RB alignment

Let us take a look at how USC lines up based on the Quarterback and Running Back(s).  This means differentiating the plays by I-formation (2 RBs), Ace formation (1 RB), Shotgun, and Wildcat.  I considered I-formation and Ace only if the QB was under center, so a Shotgun 1 RB formation is counted under Shotgun but not under Ace.  Please note that all of these numbers are considering the formation that USC is in when the ball is snapped.  This means it is post-motion.

The majority of USC’s plays are run out of I-formation or Ace.  You can see I-formation’s usage took a major dip at the Stanford game when Havili dislocated his shoulder.  Overall, USC plays 40% of its plays in I-formation and 44% of its plays in Ace formation.  Generally, USC uses these formations interchangeably.  When a game has less I-formation, it typically means more Ace formation is used and vice-versa.

Shotgun has been used in many passing situations and reached an all-season high at Stanford with nearly 25% of our plays coming out of Shotgun.  However, we typically seem to be using Shotgun anywhere between 10-15% of our plays in any given game with 48 out of 489 offensive plays (10%) out of Shotgun for the season.

Wildcat was introduced once the “preseason” ended and has held fairly steady at 10% of USC’s offensive plays.  USC likes to use the wildcat in short yardage situations.  It is also noteworthy that USC will occasionally line up in the Wildcat before motioning back into a Shotgun formation.

Formation by Number of WRs

Another interesting look is to view the formation based on the number of Wide Receivers employed.  Generally, the more WRs that are used, the more threat of the pass there is.  Less WRs mean more Tight Ends, Full Backs, and Running Backs.  This is not always the case as USC has integrated its TEs, FBs, and RBs in the passing attack and often relies on these positions to provide additional protection to the QB in passing situations.  These will also be the positions with the responsibility to recognize blitzes and pick them up.  So let us look at the various numbers of WRs used in formations.

By far, the most used formations involve 2 WR sets.  This generally means a standard I-formation (2 RBs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) or a Ace formation with 1 RB, 2 TEs, and 2 WRs.  There are a couple of odd formations thrown in, but these are typically the bread and butter of USC’s offense.

There has been a general downward trend of the 2 WR formation as the season progresses and as Kiffin opens up the playbook.  There are a number of reasons which may be the cause of this.  First, the injury of Stanley Havili will be a factor as it will decrease the number of I-formation plays we run.  Second, the improvement of Robert Woods as a receiver increases the passing threat and can open up a lot of multiple WR sets.  Third, this may be in preparation for next season after Stanley Havili graduates.  Kiffin has already noted that without another scholarship Fullback, USC may need to adopt more of a spread offense.  This means using a lot more WRs and utilizing the talent we have on hand.

3 WR sets have been on the up rise with the general decrease in 2 WR sets.  Remember that this does not necessarily mean that there are 3 WRs on the field.  A TE or Stanley Havili may motion out from their normal spots and go to the outside and I will track them as WRs.  USC has especially incorporated more 3 WR sets in the Stanford game and the Cal game and a big dip on 3 WR sets against Washington.  This is likely due to the gameplan for these games.  USC passed the ball well against Stanford and Cal so the additional 3 WR sets reflect that.  Against Washington, USC game planned to run the ball early and often against the Huskies, which mean a lot more I-Formation and 2 TE Ace Formations.  There was even a slight uptick of 1 WR sets against Washington.  These are power run formations that are most likely I-formation with 2 TEs instead of one.


USC has been relying on the I-formation and the 2 TE Ace formation for many years now.  With the athletes that we have recruited, this has given us a lot of versatility in running the ball as well as passing.  It provides a strong rushing front as well as potential for some very strong passing protection.  It is worthy to note that often there are eight guys in the box against USC because USC actually forces opposing defenses to bring eight guys in the box.  The I-formation and the 2 TE Ace formation have seven potential blockers on any given running play, which means there are eight gaps for the RB to go through.  For an effective rushing defense, the defense must account for each blocker as well as the running back (or another way to look at it is to account for each gap).  Just something to remember when someone brings up the fact that the defense has put eight guys in the box all night long.

However, this may all change after this season.  With Stanley Havili graduating and no other scholarship Fullback on the roster, USC will either have to move a Tight End over to Fullback or discontinue using the I-formation.  It will be interesting to see how this aspect plays out.

Time permitting, I will try to run more formation based stats such as the formation trends based on down and distance.  I will also try to find time to calculate the run vs pass tendencies based on formation.  Keep an eye out for those.


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