USC vs Arizona Final Play Analysis

This post will look at the final offensive play for USC in their game against Arizona.  I know this game took place a number of weeks ago, and normally I wouldn’t analyze a play if more than about a week has passed since the game.  I would rather have plays that are fresh in the readers’ minds.  However, this play analysis was a request by a reader and I feel we can gain some good insight into this play.

In case your memory must be refreshed, USC had the ball with a 14 point lead with 1:51 left in the game.  It was 4th and 1 on the Arizona 47 yard line.  USC called a play action pass which was incomplete, intended for Brandon Carswell.  Some critics, Kiffin included, say that Barkley should have thrown to an open Robert Woods, which would have given enough yardage to gain the first down.  Anyways, the pass to Carswell was broken up to cause a turnover on downs.  Arizona got the ball back and scored to narrow the margin to only a touchdown.  USC was able to recover the onside kick and the game was over.

Here is a video of the 4th down play:

The Setup

First, let us look at the setup for the play.  So far this season (including games that have occurred after the Arizona game), USC has run the ball three times and passed twice (one of those being the play we’re looking at) on 4th and 1.  Last season, USC ran the ball nine times (75%) and passed three times (25%) on 4th and 1.  The typical play call in this situation is a running play to get the yardage needed.  However, as a change of pace, teams will attempt play action or a quick pass to the exterior on a high completion pass route.

The Formation

Let us look at how USC lined up on the play.

USC lined up under center with a single running back.  On the left was an isolated WR.  To the right, USC has wide receivers lined up in trips.  Both sides of the formation are lined up tight.  Robert Woods is in the trips group as the interior WR and Carswell is lined up on the boundary on the trips side.

The Play Diagram

Now let us look at how this play is designed.

First, there is the play action.  Barkley fakes the ball to Marc Tyler.  Tyler hits the right B gap hard and literally dives through it, as if attempting to get just the first down yardage and draw defenders towards him.

Next are the two wide receivers lined up on the line of scrimmage.  Both receivers run about five yards up and cut inwards towards each other.  They cross each others path and continue onwards.

Brandon Carswell runs a simple go route.

Robert Woods, highlighted in this play diagram, runs a simple flat to the right and passes under the receiver running the in route and also under Carswell’s route as well.  This type of action is used to try to pick off defenders playing tight man coverage.  The defenders run the risk of colliding with their own teammates as the wide receivers pass underneath each other.  If I were to guess, Woods is the primary read receiver here due to the minimal yardage we’re aiming at and the fact that he crosses underneath two other receivers’ routes.  However, it is also possible that he is simply the check down receiver.  It is hard to say without knowing the actual design of the play.

The Play Action Point

Let us look at how the defense reacted at the point of the play action fake handoff.

The defense must have thought that this was going to be a running play and keyed on the run.  One of the linebackers blitzes while another linebacker seems to spy on the play, roaming in the direction that Tyler and Barkley goes, but does not commit to coming in.  The safety, linebacker on the right side, and the two defensive backs on the right side also bite on the play action by cheating in on the run.  The cornerback in isolation on the left side of the field stays with his man.

Post Play Action

Now let us look at how the play develops after the play action fake.

Once the play action has ended, the defenders realize their mistake and attempt to regain some semblance of coverage.  The spying linebacker now comes in on an outside blitz to pressure Barkley.  The linebacker that cheated the run on the right now rushes to get to the sideline to cover Robert Woods.  The safety and two defensive backs that also bit on the play action backpedal to chase down Carswell.

One of those defensive backs chasing Carswell breaks off after a while to cover one of the WRs on an in route.  The other cornerback who was in isolation when the play started stays with his man until the crossing point of the two WRs.  At that point, he does a switch and covers the other WR on the crossing route.  The fact that the defenders switched on the crossing wide receivers hints that the defenders should be in some sort of zone defense.

Here is a screen capture of this point in the play.  Notice that both Woods and Carswell have multiple steps on all the defenders and are both wide open at this point due to the play action.  Please note that all defenders are in frame and there is no over the top safety support.

The Throw

At this point, Barkley has two wide receivers wide open, both of them having beat their defenders due to the play action and both with enough yardage with the catch to get the first down (and effectively end the game).  He just has to decide between throwing to the short flats to Robert Woods or to the deep go route with Carswell.  Barkley chooses Carswell deep.  Unfortunately, the ball is vastly under thrown.  This may have been due to the fact that Barkley threw somewhat on the run and never set his feet and even throws while inexplicably hopping.  Here is a screen capture of Barkley throwing the ball with both his feet clearly off the ground (look at the shadow).  Also notice how open Woods is in the flats.

Since the ball is under thrown, the defender is able to recover from the four or five yard separation with Carswell and make a play to break up the pass.  When watching the video, notice Carswell has to stop almost completely and jump for the ball, where the defender easily knocks it away without ever having to look back and locate the ball.

Here is a picture showing the initial gap that Carswell has on all the defenders.  Carswell is the blur on the far left at about the 30 yard line.  The closest defender is on the 34 and a half yard line.

And here is another shot moments later after Carswell has to stop his momentum to catch the ball.


The decision to throw to Carswell deep rather than Robert Woods in the flat in it of itself isn’t a horrible decision by Barkley.  Both receivers were wide open.  Throwing to Carswell has the added benefit in that it would have been a touchdown given a proper throw.  However, given the context of the situation, Barkley should have thrown to the flats to Robert Woods.  The point of the play isn’t to score, it is to get the first down and end the game.  In this case, the flats is the safer throw and the one that Barkley should have made.

However, like I stated earlier, throwing to Carswell isn’t a horrible decision as both players are open.  The more glaring mistake is the throw itself.  It is a widely criticized aspect of Barkley’s game that he doesn’t set his feet properly when throwing the ball.  He relies heavily on arm strength and sometimes forgets his fundamental mechanics.  This is one of those instances where he relied on his arm strength to complete a long throw and ended up vastly under throwing it, causing the play to break down.

Now that you know the play call and what broke down in the play, take another look at the video:


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