In my opinion, the defense really held this game together. The defense played strong all game long and covered for a lot of the offense’s mistakes. This post will look at the play calling by Utah first to see what they threw at our defense. We will then look at 3rd down defense and finally compare the yards per quarter for each team.
I expected Utah to throw a very balanced attack at us. Norm Chow typically likes to establish the run game and use that to build a passing attack. However, Utah was throwing the ball early and often. Overall, Utah ran the ball 23 times (32%) and passed the ball 48 times (68%). First we’ll look at the play calling by quarter.
From the get-go, Utah was throwing twice as often as they were running. Even on their first drive of the game, which is typically scripted to probe what the defense is doing, featured five passes and only a single run. Utah continued the trend of 2:1 passing to run through the first half. After halftime, Utah started out by passing, but turned more to the run as they closed the scoring margin back to three points. Finally, in the fourth quarter, Utah nearly gave up on the run as the clock started to work against them.
Now let us look at the play calling by down.
First down was the nearly balanced by Utah. However, as the downs progressed, Utah favored the pass more and more. The run was almost non-existent on third down with the only runs coming on a 3rd and 2 and a 3rd and 1. This brings us to our analysis on 3rd down.
3rd Down Defense
USC’s defense was strong on early downs, forcing a lot of 3rd and longs. In fact, Utah’s average distance to go on 3rd down was a whopping 7.8 yards. 11 out of their 15 (73%) 3rd downs were 3rd and longs. That is phenomenal work by USC’s defense.
One particular thing that I loved seeing was the aggressiveness on defense when in 3rd and long situations. One major complaint in recent years was that the defense would sit in prevent defense on 3rd and long and give the quarterback time to pick us apart and convert. This game showed a new sense of aggressiveness as USC was often sending an additional one or two man blitz on 3rd and long. This resulted in two sacks and plenty of incomplete passes due to hurries on these clear passing downs.
Let us look at the average gain by down to see exactly how that additional pressure weighed down on Utah. Keep in mind the play calling on 3rd down had 13 passes versus only two runs.
By forcing Utah to become one dimensional on offense and by sending the house in blitzing, USC was able to drop Utah’s average gain on 3rd down all the way to a paltry 1.47 yards. This is when they had an average of 7.8 yards to go. I hope that Monte Kiffin continues to let his guys get at the quarterback in these types of situations.
Gain by Quarter
Let us look at the yards gained per quarter by both USC and Utah.
The main discrepancy between the two teams was the first quarter in which USC jumped to an early lead. USC spotted Utah with some extra yards and drives thanks to the turnovers in the 2nd and 3rd quarter.
The final quarter is interesting because both teams tanked in yardage. USC’s offense sputtered a bit in the 4th quarter, thanks to a number of execution errors. First was an illegal downfield penalty which really means that the freshman Marqise Lee lined up incorrectly. This negated a 3rd down conversion. Next came an illegal chop block on a QB sneak. Finally, we failed to convert a first down to end the game on our final drive as we attempted to run the ball three times. I wondered at the time whether Kiffin had the cajones to call a play action pass there, as the defense was undeniably going to be sending in run blitzes. I guess he wasn’t quite ready for that play calling. It should be noted that running the ball is probably the “right” call in that situation, but it is always good to mix it up.
As for Utah’s offense in the 4th quarter, they had three drives in the 4th quarter which were three and outs. Props to the defense to step up to the plate late in the game, which is when they would normally collapse last season. As earlier noted, USC sacked Utah’s QB twice in the 4th quarter as Monte Kiffin sent in the blitzes on 3rd and long. All in all, we ended up with a very low yardage 4th quarter as both teams jostled for field position via the punting game.
The defense plays solid football. The defensive front is especially strong, and if Armstead is ever cleared, they could become even better. The secondary will need to improve as they can’t always rely on the pass rush to cover for their mistakes. Although I will say that I thought that the Utah receivers played exceptionally well. There were a lot of amazing catches, whether it was diving or right at the sidelines, that I don’t know that I can really fault the DBs.
This has been the first game in a while, maybe all the way back since 2008, that I have really trusted the defense whenever the offense failed to execute. I was never really worried this game as I just had that faith that the defense would hold. Generally, they didn’t disappoint. Of course there were plays that broke through, like the 51 yard end around that setup a Utah touchdown, but these tended to be singular plays rather than a string of bad defense.