Opening up the Playbook

USC had an ok showing against Syracuse.  It wasn’t great but it also wasn’t horrible and we came out with a win on the road.  We maintained ball control for the most part, which was the gameplan on a cross country road game.  Our running game improved markedly from the Hawaii game (see my previous analysis of the Hawaii game here).  Barkley had a couple really bad decisions passing the ball and underperformed yardage wise.  However, they were very efficient and did account for six touchdowns.  Defense still had some problem spots, mostly by the #2 corner (that is for another time to analyze), but did grab a couple turnovers and generally did their job.  This post will concentrate on the offense and how we might “open up the playbook” in the coming game against ranked Stanford.

What was used

I rewatched the game and decided to take a look at what kinds of offensive plays USC used and in what numbers.  I wrote down a bunch of offensive concepts and incremented the count whenever I saw the concept.  Note that some plays (particularly passing plays) could have multiple concepts attached to them, but I generally picked the concept that I felt most applied.  Also note that these counts include plays that were negated by penalties.  Here is what I saw:

First, let us look at the runs that USC did.  Of the 30 runs that I tracked, 53% of them were Dive plays with the running back going straight up the middle.  The blocking scheme of these runs were fairly vanilla with Inside Zone blocking schemes.  The next most common running play, at 20% of our runs, was the Off Tackle run.  In this play, the running back aims to run at the C gap inside of the offensive tackle and adjusts the running lane based on how the play develops.  Isolation plays, or plays with a fullback lead blocker, came in third with 17%.  The two reverse plays (7%) were the most exciting as Marquise Lee and Robert Woods showed their speed for big gains.  All other running play types combined for 13% of USC’s runs.

Now for passing.  31% of our passing plays were bubble screens (which is a glorified run play as I explain in my article on bubble screens).  USC typically used five step drops over one, three, or seven step drops.  Play action was used on 17% of plays that I tracked.

Why use these plays?

The plays that USC used follow a general trend that they are easily executed, do not show too much of the offense, and most importantly they favor the athletic talent divide between the teams.

Bubble screens are great when you have Woods and Lee out on the perimeter one on one against much slower corners.  That is why you get plays such as Lee’s 41 yard reception midway through the first quarter against Hawaii.  Reverse plays are a little bit harder on execution and rely on misdirection, but they also work with the athletic gap differential to get your athletes stretching the defense out laterally before cutting up field.  It was interesting to see two reverse plays in one game (both for big gains), as I imagine we usually only run one or two reverse plays an entire season on average.

Simple run plays such as the dive rely on execution and are easier to succeed in with the physique gap between our players against the opposing defenses.  In other words, the plays we ran were dictated by getting consistent positive yardage by exploiting the talent and physique advantages of our team rather than using misdirection and complementary play calling.

What wasn’t used

More interesting than what was used was what wasn’t used or used very little.  USC ran no counter or draw running plays.  USC also ran no plays that used rollouts, bootlegs, or screen passes.  Power, FB dive, outside zone, and toss each only received one running play while passing plays utilizing sluggo, swing, and slant routes also only got one play each.

By not running these types of plays often or at all, the offense is particularly limited and it makes it easier for a defense to defend against.  Conversely, when USC does “open up the playbook,” it will make it much more difficult for opposing defenses, especially when the coach starts calling complementary plays.

Counter plays can be combined with outside zone or off tackle runs to get the defense flowing in the wrong direction at the start of the play.  This makes it much easier for offensive linemen to wall off the defenders.  Toss plays and swing passes get the ball out quickly to the perimeter, stretching the defense horizontally.  Draw plays and screen passes can limit blitzes and over-agressive defenses (like we saw against Hawaii) as it draws the defense into attacking your QB and you simply just run or pass the ball right behind them.  Power runs help establish a local number superiority and can really help force the defense to creep up, which will open up the deep ball.  FB dives help gain short yardage and with such a quick fullback in Soma Vainuku it could be effective.  Slants work well for short quick gains with corners playing off the line (similar to how a Bubble Screen would work) and the corresponding sluggo route would get the deep ball going.  In the first two games, Barkley has relied on simply throwing lofty floaters on the deep ball and allowing Woods or Lee to get under the ball.  Most of our other large gains in passing have been short passes with many yards after catch rather than actually throwing a deep ball.  With the sluggo, Barkley would show a faster ball that would hit Woods and Lee in stride, allowing them to continue to burn the defense after the catch.

In my opinion, the most important plays that USC has not been showing is bootleg and rollout passes.  Using these in conjunction with more variation in the number of drop back steps (more three and seven step drops) is important to keep the defensive line guessing.  These concepts move the launch point of the football, making it harder for the pass rush to get to the quarterback as they can no longer just focus and aim at a single launch point.  Up to this point, Hawaii and Syracuse could pretty much just pin their hair back and aim at the launch point of 5 or 7 steps behind the line of scrimmage, depending on if we lined up under center or in Shotgun.  There wasn’t much need to try to contain the quarterback on the perimeter.

Adding the rollouts and bootlegs would also open up a number of USC’s bread and butter plays.  In previous seasons, how many short yardage conversions and touchdowns have you seen USC get where we did play action then rolled the QB out with an easy pitch and catch to a FB or TE that snuck out in the flats with the QB?  That is a classic USC touchdown at least since Pete Carroll was coaching.  Could a defense defend against both the Silas Redd run up the middle and Soma Vainuku or one of our tight ends faking the block then making a quick break to the outside?  What about long yardage rollouts such as using play action to draw up the safeties then rolling Barkley in the same direction that Woods or Lee is running on a deep post corner across the field?


There are a number of plays that USC has yet to reveal.  These plays are complementary in nature and open up a lot of room for misdirection in the play calling (such as intermixing calls with slants with those with sluggo routes).  These types of plays open up the offense and should be something we expect to see in this coming game against Stanford.  Kiffin won’t open the playbook all up at once as execution would suffer, but keep an eye out for concepts that we haven’t seen much this season.  Also keep in mind that Stanford will be doing the same thing in that they have likely been holding back a lot of offensive plays in preparation for this Saturday’s game.


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