USC Play Calling by Formation

This post will look at the play calling based on the formations that USC lines up in at the time of the snap.  First we will look at the overall play calling based on the high level formation.  Then we will take a closer look into USC’s main formations: I-Formation, Ace, and Shotgun.


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 USC vs Oregon game.  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.


Let us first look at the play calling based on the high-level formation used.  The formations that we will look at are I-Formation (two Running Backs), Ace Formation (one RB), Empty (no RB), Shotgun (any formation in Shotgun, no requirements on # of RBs), Wildcat (RB as the Quarterback), and Goalline.

The I-Formation is typically used as a heavy running formation since it puts so many offensive players near the ball.  However, with a roster such as USC’s, a good Fullback and Tight Ends provide the passing strength while coming out of this formation.  While in I-Formation, USC has run the ball 127 times (60%) and passed the ball 85 times (40%).

The Ace formation doesn’t show quite the rushing strength as the I-formation since any TEs must align to a side and show strength in that direction.  To get a power run out of the Ace formation, you may see pulling guards being utilized.  While in the Ace formation, USC ran the ball 102 times (41%) and passed the ball 145 times (59%).  Ace is the formation that USC utilizes the most.  This is likely because of lack of depth at fullback, moving USC away from the I-Formation.

USC does not use the empty set often, usually only for obvious passing situations.  But even in these situations, USC typically likes to have a RB in the formation for additional protection for the QB.  However, while in the Empty formation, USC has run the ball only once (8%) and passed the ball 11 times (92%).

Up next is Shotgun.  This is another formation used generally in passing situations only, although USC will come out in it on occasion for early downs as a change of pace.  While in Shotgun, USC has run the ball eight times (15%) and passed the ball 46 times (85%).

Wildcat was introduced in the Washington game and has been used in each game since with the exception of the most recent ASU game.  Thus far, USC has utilized the Wildcat as a running formation, running the ball 15 times (94%) and passing only once (6%).

Goalline formations show some sort of power run and the idea is typically to move the pile.  USC has not used this formation much, mostly on 3rd and shorts situations, as we usually rely on the I-formation for running situations.  While in Goalline, USC has run the ball nine times (82%) and passed the ball twice (18%).

Personnel Definitions

For the following in-depth looks at various formations, I use the digits personnel grouping terminology to differentiate different personnel within a high-level formation.  For instance, a typical I-Formation will be referred to as “21.”  In this terminology, the digit in the ten’s place (in this case, the “2”), refers to the number of Running Backs on the field.  The digit in the one’s place (in this case, the “1”) refers to the number of Tight Ends on the field.  In general, to get the number of Wide Receivers on the field, subtract each digit from five and the result is the number of WRs (in this case: 5 – 2 – 1 = 2, so two WRs).


Let’s break down the I-formation play calling more in depth.  There are three personnel groupings that are possible in an I-formation: 22, 21, and 20.

22 is a very powerful run formation as you have eight potential blockers to your RB (five linemen + two tight ends + full back).  To effectively stop a run out of the 22, the defense must generally put nine defenders in the box.  In this formation, there is only a single WR, so it does not provide much passing strength typically.  However, USC has been very balanced while in this formation and personnel grouping.  Much of the passing out of this formation is likely to be done with some play action.

When in I-Formation, USC will typically be in 21 personnel.  This standard I-Formation provides a distinct lean towards the run without sacrificing too much from the pass.  The TE and RBs can provide either passing targets or additional pass protection, which allows for a lot of versatility to be used in this formation.  Still, USC uses the standard I-Formation as a “run-first” formation, having run out of this formation nearly twice as often as they pass.  Play action can be used very effectively in this formation.

The 20 personnel grouping for I-formation adds a little more potential for the pass, as it adds another WR to the mix, but now relies on only the fullback for run blocking.  USC stays fairly balanced in this formation and even leans slightly towards the pass.

Ace Formation

Let us take a more in depth look at the Ace formation.  There were five different personnel groupings that I have logged USC using: 14 (although I admit this may have been a 10 grouping that I mistakenly logged as 14), 13, 12, 11, and 10.

USC’s most common Ace formation personnel grouping is the 12 Ace Formation.  This formation is utilized very much like the I-Formation, and oftentimes, USC will motion freely between 12 and the standard 21 I-Formation by motioning the TE to the FB spot and vice versa.  While in the 12 Ace, USC stays fairly balanced with 57 runs and 56 passes.

The second most common Ace formation used is the 11.  This provides an additional WR to the mix while still providing six potential run blockers (five linemen + TE) and seven potential players in pass protection (five linemen + TE + RB).  While in the 11, USC tends to pass twice as much as they run.

The 10 Ace formation shows a lot of passing strength with four WRs.  The RB in this formation will often be used as additional pass protection to pick up any blitzes or as a checkdown outlet if no one else is open.  USC typically passes in this formation nearly four times as often as they run.

The 13 Ace formation is not often utilized by USC, but typically tends to be very balanced.  Often, one or more of the TEs in this formation are actually WRs lined up tight to the line.


The Shotgun formation is utilized as a passing formation.  Lining up your QB in the Shotgun formation hinders the run in a number of ways, but allows for additional time for the QB to throw the ball since he is lined up so deep.  There is a very wide range of personnel groupings that are used in Shotgun: 20, 12, 13, 10, 02, 01, and 00.

USC typically doesn’t run the ball in Shotgun, but has run the ball out of 13, 10, and 01 Shotgun formations.

The most used Shotgun formation for USC is the 10.  This formation has a strong WR presence with four WRs and has the versatility of the RB to either be additional pass protection, a checkdown, or a running threat.  USC has run out of this formation four times (24%) and passed 13 times (76%).

The next most used Shotgun formation is the 13.  This is a little bit of an odd shotgun formation, but the three TEs may be just a tight bunched WR grouping that I logged as TEs.  Similarly to the 10, USC passes the ball nearly four times as often as they run.

USC uses the 00 Shotgun formation in pure passing situations or to spread the field on early downs.  As to be expected, this is a pure passing formation and has been used ten times to pass the ball.


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