This post will look at the defensive side of the ball for USC in their recent game against Arizona. The post will first look at the play calling by Arizona and will then look at the Arizona’s ability to sustain drives.
Overall, Arizona ran the ball 16 times (24%) and passed the ball 50 times (76%). This is drastically different than their play calling throughout the season. In previous games, Arizona had run the ball 291 times (45%) and passed the ball 359 times (55%). However, in those previous games, when Arizona was down by seven or more points, they have run the ball 17 times (30%) and passed the ball 39 times (70%). This is more like the play calling that was seen against USC as Arizona was playing catchup since the beginning.
It is also worthwhile to note that USC contained Arizona’s run game below their average. Since they didn’t run the ball as often as they normally do, we will look at yards per carry rather than pure rushing yardage in the game. Typically Arizona gains 4.4 yards per carry, yet they only rushed for 2.8 yards per carry against USC, 1.4 yards below their average. On the other hand, USC typically allows 4.4 yards per carry in rushing defense, so USC performed 1.4 yards above their average.
Let us now look at the play calling by down.
Arizona passed the ball in all situations. On 1st down, they were running 1/3 of the time. By 2nd down, it was 1/4 of the time. Finally, on 3rd down, Arizona only ran the ball once. This lone run was on a 3rd and 1 in the 1st quarter on the USC 24 yard line. Greg Nwoko gained six yards on this rushing play and gained a first down. Looking at the play calling per down shows the heavy pass reliance that Arizona played.
Now let us look at the play calling per quarter.
This paints a slightly different picture. Arizona starts the game out fairly balanced with 10 runs and 11 passes in the 1st quarter. However, already down 14-0 after the 1st quarter of play, Arizona would effectively give up on the run for the rest of the game. Arizona only rushed six more times throughout the entire remainder of the game. The 4th quarter, which featured a 10 point score margin up until 1:09 left in the game, featured no runs and 12 passes by Arizona.
Despite USC’s 14:54 advantage in Time of Possession, Arizona still matched USC’s 24 first downs throughout the game. This is actually quite important. Arizona was able to sustain drives, just as USC was able to, but Arizona was in a hurry up mode since they were coming from behind. Giving up on the run early and USC’s ability to establish a run game is what made this a lopsided match-up in terms of time of possession.
First, let us look at the conversion rates allowed by USC per down.
USC allowed a staggering 69% 3rd down conversion rate for Arizona. It was frustrating to see USC’s defense get burned time and time again on 3rd down, allowing Arizona to continue driving even after 3rd and longs. It seemed the only time Arizona stalled was within the redzone. Let’s take a closer look at the 3rd downs by breaking them up by distance.
This is where the real problem is. Arizona converted 2/2 3rd and shorts, which is acceptable as they were both 3rd and 1’s. These are difficult for any defense to prevent the conversion. Arizona was 2/3 on 3rd and mediums, the lone stop coming on a 3rd and 4 in which T.J. McDonald blew up a swing pass for a gain of only one. However, the kicker really is 3rd and long, where Arizona converted 7/11. This included conversions on 3rd downs of 8, 8, 10, 10, 10, 11, and 12 yards to go. We were able to stop 3rd downs of 9, 10, 16*, and 24 yards. The 16 has an asterisk because Arizona actually gained enough yardage to convert the 1st down, but USC forced a fumble causing the conversion to fail.
Next let us look at the average distance to go per down compared to the average yards allowed by USC’s defense.
USC had moderate success on 1st down, allowing 5.7 yards on average. 2nd down was actually superbly played by USC’s defense, allowing an average of only 2.5 yards. Good defense on these early downs forced a ton of 3rd and longs, with Arizona averaging 8.9 yards to go on 3rd down. However, USC’s defense was allowing an average of 10.8 yards on 3rd down! This is unacceptable given such a strong 2nd down showing.
Because of this strong conversion rates, Arizona was able to sustain drives and march down the field. Arizona had an average starting field position at their own 23 yard line compared to USC’s average starting field position of their own 42. However, even with USC winning the field position battle, Arizona still took 59% of their offensive snaps on USC’s side of the field compared to USC’s 56% on Arizona’s side. Yet, even though Arizona was able to march the field, USC held firm when it mattered and prevented key points from being put onto the board.