This post will look at the formations utilized by USC throughout the season. It will start by looking at the motion utilized by USC and then will look at the various formations used.
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. 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 (at the time). 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 here, the start of the season was much more erratic in the use of motion compared to the end of the season. The erratic nature of the early season may have been establishing the playbook of the new coaching staff. Also, it could have been a little bit of experimentation as the coaching staff tried to find their sweet spot.
Once USC reached the Stanford game in week 6, things stabilized at around 40% of plays employing some sort of motion. An all time high for the season was the Washington game in which 70% of plays utilized motion. The all time low was the opener at Hawaii where only 8% of plays used motion. Overall, 218 of the 489 plays I tracked utilized motion this season. This equates to 44.6% of the plays.
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 if motion was employed.
The Ace formation and the I-formation were the most utilized formations by USC. Overall, Ace formation has been used for 43% of USC’s offensive plays and I-formation has been utilized for 38%. This means 81% of USC’s plays have utilized one of these two formations. Generally, USC uses the Ace and the I formations interchangeably. When a game has less I-formation, it typically means more Ace formation is used and vice-versa.
It is worth noting that fullback Stanley Havili dislocated his shoulder at the Stanford game. There is a corresponding dip in the use of I-formation against Stanford and a slow climb back to utilizing the I-formation until the Oregon State game when there was another dip.
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. It peaked again against Notre Dame with 21% of our offensive plays coming out in Shotgun. However, we typically seem to be using Shotgun anywhere between 10-15% of our plays in any given game. Overall, 106 out of 871 offensive plays (12%) were out of Shotgun for the season.
The Wildcat was introduced once the “preseason” ended and held 10% of USC’s offensive plays for two games until it dropped off. Against Cal, it was only used for 5% of USC’s plays. Both Arizona schools did not see any Wildcat used against them. Then, USC brought back the wildcat for the final three games of the season, utilizing it for about 5% of their 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 Wide Receivers
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. However, this is not always the case as USC has integrated its Tight Ends, Fullbacks, and Running Backs 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.
In general, USC utilizes a two WR set. 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 other odd formations thrown in, but these are typically the bread and butter of USC’s offense. Overall, the two WR set has been employed for 46% of USC’s plays. There is a general downtrend of usage of the two WR set near the end of the season, but there is a fairly drastic uptick to finish off the season, especially against UCLA. This could possibly be attributed to giving senior Stanley Havili a lot more reps for his last game. Of course this is only speculation.
USC has also utilized a lot of three WR sets. These typically are Ace formation sets with 1 RB, 1 TE, and 3 WRs. Three WR sets were used for 27% of USC’s offensive plays, but had an increased role for a significant portion of the 2nd half of the season. The general increase in usage for the three WR set and the general decline of the two WR set may be attributed to a number of reasons. First, the injury of Stanley Havili at the Stanford game 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 have been in preparation for next season after Stanley Havili graduates. Kiffin has already noted that without another scholarship Fullback, USC may need to adopt more spread offense concepts. This means using a lot more WRs and utilizing the talent we have on hand.
Single WR sets and four WR sets are the next most commonly used formations. Each of these sets held about 10% of USC’s offensive snaps. The single WR sets were likely goalline or I-formation with two TEs. These are heavy run formations and had a peak usage of 19% of plays against Arizona. Conversely, the four WR set is a heavier passing set and also peaked at the Arizona game with 17% of plays coming with four WRs.
The empty five WR set was rarely used by USC. These sets only appeared in eight of the 12 games that I tracked (remember, no data for the Oregon game) and was only used for 3% of USC’s total plays. The season high was against ASU in which 9% of plays were in the five WR set. These five WR sets aren’t used much by USC because it lacks versatility in terms of the run threat as well as pass protection. Run concepts must be applied through sweeps or bubble screens. As for pass protection, it puts a tremendous strain on the five offensive linemen. Even a creative +1 blitz can overwhelm the pass protection if the offensive line doesn’t pick up their assignments effectively. A +2 blitz will generally have one pass rusher unblocked and will almost always force a hot read by the quarterback. On the flip side, a five WR set will put a tremendous strain on the opposing secondary as it can stretch the defense horizontally and vertically.
USC has been relying on the I-formation and the two 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 two 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, as the season progressed, USC utilized less of the I-formation or two TE Ace sets, instead relying more on single TE Ace sets with three WRs instead. This move away from the I-formation was likely done in preparation for next year, when we will have no seasoned Fullback. Look for even more Spread concepts to be incorporated into the offense over summer and fall camps as the Offensive Line will be very thin and inexperienced next year.
Next, I will do a post looking at the run vs pass play calling by USC based on the formation. Look for this post sometime next week.