USC at Cal 4th Down Attempt Analysis

Early in the first quarter, USC received the ball via a fumble on the Cal 37 yard line.  USC quickly marched into scoring distance but the drive stalled from there.  Eventually, USC found itself on 4th and 8 at the Cal 8 yard line.  Most of you will remember what occurred from there.

Here is a video link of the play: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaKBKqWnINo

USC lined up in what I call the “field goal option” formation.  From here, a play was run in which there was a direct snap to fullback Rhett Ellison.  Unfortunately, Ellison fumbled the snap and the play was doomed from the start.

This post is meant to give further insight into the background of this play call.  It will describe what should have happened on the play in detail, which will hopefully give more insight into what USC does on these field goal option formation plays.  We will first look at the formation that USC lined up in.  Then we will analyze what USC potentially looks for in a the pre-snap read.  Finally, we will look at the actual play assignments as it should have been run.

Formation and Personnel

This is the formation that USC came out in.  USC was 8 yards out from the goal line and it was 4th and goal.  The ball was on the right hash.

First let us analyze the formation and the personnel.  The center, #62, is long snapper Chris Pousson.  Behind him in Shotgun is Matt Barkley (highlighted as he is the one who makes the read).  Let us look on the right side of the formation first. On the far right is #48 Andre Heidari (highlighted as he is the kicker).  Next to him is Offensive Linemen #74 Jeremy Galten and #60 John Katnik.  Now let us look at the left side of the formation.  Starting in the front interior, we have Offensive Tackles #70 Aundrey Walker and #75 Matt Kalil.  Also on the line of scrimmage is Tight End #82 Randall Telfer.  Flexed next to Telfer is another Tight End #86 Xavier Grimble.  In the backfield we have Fullback #40 Rhett Ellison (highlighted as he is the ball carrier).  I consider Ellison to be the “Running Back” in this formation.  As Rhett Ellison’s lead blocker, or what I consider to be the “Fullback” in this play, we have who I believe to be Fullback #45 Chandler Larsen, although it is very difficult to get a clear view of his number in the video.

Pre-Snap Read

USC lines up in this type of formation often on extra point attempts.  Typically, USC will line up like this, then Barkley will signal to motion back into a field goal look.  So why does USC line up in this formation?

Simply put, this is a pre-snap read for Matt Barkley.  I imagine that in most cases, Barkley is not explicitly told by Kiffin whether to go for it or not, similar to how Matt Leinart was not explicitly told to sneak the ball in the Bush Push play against Notre Dame in ’05.  Sure, Pete Carroll wanted Leinart to go for it, but he left it up to Leinart as it was a built in option to the spike play call.  Now back to this past game against Cal.  When this particular field goal option play is called, it is up to Barkley to make the read and the judgment call himself.  In other instances where we want/need the points and don’t want the option, Kiffin would likely call the non-read version of the field goal.

So what does Barkley read?  What makes this play interesting is that the read is probably never the same from game to game.  Special Team’s Coach John Baxter likely comes up with a new play (and a new read) each game and the read is often changing.  This means the defense doesn’t know what we are looking for each and every week, and they must plan for a number of different looks and hope that they are correct.  The majority of the time, the look isn’t there for USC.  That is why USC kicks more often than going for it.  But every once in a while, about three or four times this season so far, the look has been there enough for Barkley to act on it.  In this particular instance, the read was on the wide side of the field.

Here, the defense simply lines up in numbers.  USC has six players on the wide side of the field, so the defense lines up with six.  USC has two players in the middle, so the defense lines up with two.  Likewise, three players are on the sideline side of the field, so the defense is lined up with three.

The option of going for it or kicking adds additional pressure onto the defense in that they must make the choice to either have the personnel who are ready to defend a play versus personnel who are good at blocking field goals.  Take USC’s field goal block unit for example.  Right in the middle of the kick blocking line is Matt Kalil, our offensive left tackle.  I believe he has blocked three field goals already this season.  However, would he be effective in defending a fake field goal?  Probably not as his trade is offensive line, but USC has made the decision that blocking the field goal is priority.  It helps that none of our opponents have the habit of faking field goals or giving this option look.  If one of our opponents occasionally went for it, Matt Kalil may not take the field meaning our chances of blocking field goals drops when they do kick.

We will never really know what the actual read of the play was.  USC may have just been looking for equal numbers of blockers versus defenders on the playside.  There also may be a particular personnel grouping that we thought we could take advantage of based on how the blocking assignments work out.  Either way, Barkley saw what he was supposed to look for and initiated the play.

The Play’s Diagram

Now let us look at the play that is called as it should have occurred if the snap wasn’t fumbled.

This is a simple power running play and relies on numbers.  USC leaves one player unblocked on the backside of the play which allows one of the linemen to pull and lead block for Ellison.  However, the key blockers are the flexed tight end and the fullback (I have highlighted them in yellow).  The flexed Tight End is important as he provides the seal block and walls off all defenders on the inside.  This is tough as he must block two defenders coming in.  The fullback is responsible to seal off the outside of the play.  Let us look at the play as the blocks have developed.

The key blockers I had highlighted earlier have created a running lane for Ellison.  As long as the flexed Tight End can hold his seal, which he does in this particular play, both Ellison and the pulling lineman should easily walk into the endzone.  Even if the flexed Tight End cannot block both players, the pulling lineman will pick up the additional block and Ellison should still be able to walk into the endzone.

Now that you know the play’s design and blocking scheme, watch the video again and see how the blocking was executed.  It was an easy touchdown if Ellison catches that snap.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aaKBKqWnINo

Conclusions

This was a well designed play and Barkley did the correct pre-snap read to execute the play instead of kicking.  This should have been an easy touchdown for USC.  Instead, execution was poor and the snap was fumbled.  It seems from the video that the snap itself was solid and hit Ellison near the chest.  He just failed to properly secure the ball and bring it in for the run.

The commentators disagreed with the call saying that USC needed to take the points in an effort to replicate last season’s win where we pulled up 42-0 at halftime and demoralize the Bears.  However, I disagree with the commentators in that this was exactly what USC was attempting to do.  Getting an early turnover deep in Bears territory, then getting stuffed on the 8 yard line and settling for a field goal is a victory for the Bears and will in no way demoralize them.  Taking that turnover and going for the touchdown and scoring would.

The play call itself is solid, in my opinion, but the execution was poor.  We must always differentiate between these two things.  Blaming the play call because you didn’t happen to execute is being results oriented.  We should never be results oriented when discussing game theory and play calling as the actual result of the play is inconsequential to what plays you should be calling.

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