USC vs Hawaii Offensive Play Calling

USC did not establish offensive balance in their season opener against Hawaii.  USC called 42 passing plays against only 22 rushing plays (I counted Wittek’s sack as a pass play).  This means we were passing 66% of the time.  If you only count the times the starters were in, this becomes 38 passes compared to 14 runs, or 73% passing.

Why did USC pass so much?  You will hear a number of answers if you ask around.  For example, USC didn’t want to show their hand in an opener that was pretty much wrapped up after the 1st quarter.  That is a fair enough assessment and the lack of typical USC running plays such as the Power might be shown as evidence of this.  Lane Kiffin said after the game that we didn’t run the ball because of the aggressive fronts that Hawaii was showing.  Fans often translate this to: Hawaii put “eight men in the box.”  This post will look more into that phrase as well as Kiffin’s statement and delve into why USC may not have run the ball.

“Eight Men in the Box”

The phrase “eight men in the box” works on a conceptual level because in a typical defense you will have some combination of seven front-line defenders (defensive linemen and linebackers), be it a 4-3, 3-4, 5-2, or any other type of base defense you might see.  This implies seven men “in the box” is standard.  Thus, adding an extra run defender, usually by bringing down a safety, to make it eight in the box has to mean that the defense is expecting a run, right?

The answer to that is that it depends on the formation that the offense is in.  The defensive alignment will depend on how the offense is aligned.  For example,  if the offense breaks the huddle and goes four wide Shotgun, it is doubtful that the defense will put the standard seven in the box, nor the eight if they are expecting a run.  They will likely have five in the box, six if they are expecting a run.  Conversely, if the offense comes out in a power I formation, the defense is likely to align with eight in the box, nine if they are expecting the run.

The reason for this is because football is a numbers game, especially when running the ball.  Assuming all things equal, if the offense has an equal amount or more blockers than defenders, they will win the battle more often than not, and vice-versa.  This means that the defense should always have at least one more defender to stop the run than there are blockers with the unblocked defender making the tackle.

Another way to look at it is that there should be a defender responsible for every running gap.  Here is an example of how gaps are designated for a typical I-Formation.  Coaches typically letter the gaps from the inside out.

There will be a gap between every blocker and then gaps on the edges.  Running backs will always run through a gap.  Lead blockers, such as a fullback as shown above, create what I like to think of as a mobile gap.  The fullback will run through one of the existing gaps, thus splitting that gap and creating two, one on either side of him.  The defense must account for this.  To cover every possible gap, you will need one more defender than there are offensive blockers to successfully defend the run.

Of course, not all run defenders need to line up in the box.  You can have a corner cover the edge gap whose responsibility it is to force the runner back inside.  A safety could come down in run support after reading the run play and fill one of the gaps.  A defense could also try to win their leverage battles and beat the blocks rather than overload the blockers with numbers.  However, Hawaii likely wasn’t expecting to win the leverage battle against USC as they were physically outmatched pretty much across the board.  If they were to stop the run, they would have to do it with numbers.

In a way, USC forced Hawaii’s hand defensively in regards to how many players that would align in the box.  This happened because of the offensive alignment.  USC often lined up in running formations, such as the I-formation with a fullback and one tight end or the Ace formation with two tight ends, as shown below.

Both these formations have seven potential blockers (five linemen plus the tight end(s) and/or fullback).  If our theory that Hawaii was likely not expecting to be able to to win their leverage battles is correct, they should have brought in an extra run defender, meaning eight in the box.

I decided to run with this idea and rewatch the first half of the game (time restrictions limited me to the first half only) and see how many defenders Hawaii put in the box compared to the formations that USC lined up in.  Let us look at what I found.

Hawaii’s Gameplan

First let us talk about USC’s formations and the statistics around them.  There were 42 offensive plays that I tracked.  USC lined up in a standard I-formation (fullback and one tight end) 10 times.  USC lined up in Ace formation with two tight ends 10 times.  USC lined up in a power run formation (fullback and two tight ends or single back with three tight ends) four times.  See the screen captures below for examples.  Combine these together and it means that out of 42 offensive plays in the first half, 24 of them (57%) were in a fairly strong running formation with at least seven potential run blockers giving a strong run threat.

On average, USC lined up with 6.7 potential blockers.  Hawaii responded to this by lining up with in-kind numbers.  On average, I saw 6.9 players in the box.  This brings into question why USC did not run the ball more.  Hawaii lined up with in-kind numbers and USC has the physique advantage, it should have been a field day on the ground.  Instead, USC ran a lot of isolation on the edges with Marquise Lee and Robert Woods in single coverage through the air.

One likely explanation is safety alignment and play.  While the safeties weren’t coming down into the box at the snap, it is likely that they were crashing down on the run after the snap and would play run support as priority over passing support.  This is conjecture on my part as I did not have the time to look for this specifically.  I do think it is a likely case though, given the amount of single coverage and lack of safety support we saw on our wide receivers, especially on deep routes.

However, one thing I did observe in rewatching the first half was the sheer amount of blitzing that Hawaii was doing against USC.  By my count, Hawaii blitzed at least one extra player on 30 out of the 40 plays I tracked in the first half.  That is 75% of plays with a blitz.  11 plays (28% of the plays I tracked) blitzed one extra player, 14 plays (35%) blitzed two extra players, and five plays (13%) blitzed three or more extra players.  My guess is that Hawaii was hoping not only to stop the run by always sending players into the backfield, but to also attempt to overwhelm our line (i.e. prevent us from providing double team help for our new left tackle Aundrey Walker).  This also puts pressure onto Silas Redd and Soma Vainuku, both on their first games at USC, in their pass blocking.  With this in mind, it is a strong positive to see that Barkley was not sacked during this game.  Although he was hit after the throw a couple of times and had to step up to evade a sack at least once, Barkley was not using hot reads and seemed to have time to sit in the pocket for the deep passes to develop.  This means that the protection held despite the heavy handed blitzing Hawaii was doing.

It was this aggressive blitzing that I believe Kiffin was talking about when he said USC didn’t run because of Hawaii’s aggressive schemes.  With pass protection being adequate enough to give Barkley time to execute, it only made sense in Week 1 to stick with what works and not do anything too fancy (aka, not give too much away).  Quite simply, there was no need to run.


I am still a little worried about the running game.  However, it was Week 1, and you should expect to see problem areas in this early in the season.  I expect to see a much stronger ground game against Syracuse, regardless if they stack the box or blitz. I doubt many other teams will play so aggressively against USC’s run because of the playmakers we have on the outside.  Playing this aggressively also leaves you susceptible to play action (which I did not feel USC did a ton of in Week 1, but could be inaccurate upon further review).  I want to see a stronger run game because I want to know that our offense can execute the plays before we hit the bulk of our season.  There were mistakes and inconsistencies against Hawaii, but they say that teams improve the most between Week 1 and Week 2.  I expect that to be true this year as well with marked improvements in not only the running game, but also in the passing game as well.


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