USC vs Syracuse Offensive Recap

USC finished its three game home stretch with another victory.  This time, they won in convincing fashion and finally pulled together a full team effort for the game.  This post will look at the play calling by USC, formations used, conversion rates, and the rushing yards gained.

Play Calling

USC relied much more on the pass this game compared to their usual base offense.  The run had been stuffed early and often (which I will discuss more in depth later).  Overall, USC ran the ball 29 times (40%) and passed the ball 44 times (60%).  USC’s most balanced down was 2nd down in which they ran the ball 11 times (46%) and passed 12 times (54%).  Other downs had much more lean towards the pass.

Let us now look at the play calling by scoring margin for USC.

When looking at the play calling by score margin, USC kept the foot on the gas pedal until they were up by more than two touchdowns.  This occurred about halfway through the third quarter.  Once up by a secure margin, USC flipped it and instead relied heavily on the run.  Let us take a similar look but from the angle of play calling by quarter.

Again, this shows a heavy reliance on the pass as USC was not able to establish a clear running game.  Once the game was in hand in the fourth quarter, the run game started to keep the clock ticking.

Formation Notes

One thing I felt like during the game was a much heavier use of the shotgun formation.  Upon reviewing the formations used in the game, USC used the shotgun formation on 15 out of 79 plays (19%).  Compare this to the two previous games where USC used shotgun in 19 out of 158 plays (12%) and we do see a slight uptick in shotgun usage.  USC even used the shotgun formation seven times on first down.  Compare this to the six times that USC has used shotgun on first down in the previous two games combined.

Another thing of note is this season’s introduction to the Wildcat.  USC used the Wildcat on three of their plays (4%).  This included two plays on 3rd down (both which converted) and a play from 2nd and 10 which only gained two yards.  This was less Wildcat than was typically used last season, but at least we know it is still on the table.  Expect to see more of it as the season progresses and as the playbook develops.  But also don’t be surprised if it only shows up sporadically like last season.

I like the things that Lane Kiffin is doing schematically, especially how he utilizes Robert Woods.  I did not track it specifically, but Woods played in multiple positions and gave the defense multiple looks.  He even took at least one snap at fullback.  The versatility of Woods and our willingness to move him around will ultimately create mismatches and should open up a lot of plays.


USC performed extremely well in converting first downs.  Officially, USC converted 10 out of 14 3rd down conversions for a 71% conversion rate.  This in itself is good.  However, take into account that one failed 3rd down conversion was on the final play of the game and was used to run out the clock.  Ignoring this one brings us up to 10 out of 13 or a very respectable 77%.

Every 3rd down that was six or fewer yards to go was converted, which is a great sign.  This included six 3rd and shorts and two 3rd and mediums.  For 3rd and longs, USC went two out of six (33%), which is probably about what the average is.  Also account that the final play was a 3rd and long.  If we ignore that play, USC went two out of five on 3rd and longs for a 40% conversion rate.

Rushing Yards

The rushing game struggled to keep a rhythm, especially the interior runs.  The final stats are deceiving since Curtis McNeal’s valiant effort in the fourth quarter boosted the numbers.  Officially, USC gained 175 yards on 33 attempts for a respectable 5.3 yards per carry.  However, let us take a closer look into those numbers.

First, I always consider sacks to be passing yards rather than rushing yards, especially since USC doesn’t use a dual threat QB (where it gets more ambiguous).  I removed the 10 yards lost on the only sack and the rushing total raises to 185 on 32 attempts.  Next, for similar reasons, I do not count Barkley’s two scrambles which gained a total of 19 yards since these were passing plays that were called.  They were heads up plays by Barkley, for sure, but I do not consider them true run yardage in this type of analysis.  (Note: I do count Barkley’s QB sneak which gained five yards since this was a called run play).  This brings the rushing total to 166 yards on 30 attempts.  After these adjustments, USC had an average yards per carry of 5.53, actually higher than ESPN notes.

Let us proceed further by looking at the average yards per carry for each drive.  Note that USC did not run the ball at all in drive #7, which is why there is a gap.

78 of those rushing yards came on the final drive, when USC was attempting to run out the clock.  If you take those out, USC rushed for 88 yards on 22 attempts which is 4.0 yards per carry.  Furthermore, 124 rushing yards came in the final quarter with the game already fairly out of hand.  This means that USC rushed for only 56 yards on 16 carries in the first three quarters which comes out to 3.5 yards per carry.

From a yards per carry perspective, this is much better than my initial impression immediately after the game.  It is still lower than we would like, but I remember leaving the game thinking USC was unable to run the ball at all and was expecting something like two yards per carry.  Remember that USC rushed for 3.9 yards per carry against Utah, but that game seemed like a much better push on the ground.  For comparison’s sake, USC average 5.2 yards per carry last season when it had a more experienced (although thinner) offensive line.  Hopefully this is something that will improve.


USC could not establish a clear running game, even though the run produced better yardage than it seemed at the time.  Instead, USC’s offense rode on the back of Matt Barkley by utilizing interesting formations and mismatches to break the game open.  I was pleased at the overall effort of the team all game long on both sides of the ball.  Hopefully the team will continue to improve and reach the potential that we all hope for.


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