As you all know, USC lost to Stanford 21-14. It was a frustrating game for all USC fans as we watched the Trojans get pushed around the entire second half. So what happened? What went wrong? The main thing that went wrong stemmed from the offensive line and that spread through all portions of USC’s game.
The simple out is to put the blame on Cyrus Hobbi as he is the replacement for injured starter Khaled Holmes, but upon further review this is not the case. I went ahead and rewatched the game (not something I suggest unless you’re truly in the mood to be upset) so that I could take a very close look at what happened on the offensive line.
Strategy in the Trenches
First let us talk about what USC did to protect the quarterback compared to what Stanford did to get pressure. USC averaged keeping 6.1 blockers in, usually the five linemen as well as keeping the running back in for pass protection. USC went as high as keeping eight men in for pass protection leaving only two receivers to run routes. Stanford, on the other hand, averaged 4.6 rushers. Stanford would most often bring 5 rushers in, meaning two of the front seven would back off into pass coverage.
USC tried at times to protect the quarterback by lining up in the Shotgun. Of the 76 offensive formations that I tracked (some of them stopped by timeouts or penalties so won’t show up on the official play counts), 20 of them had USC in the shotgun formation. This is 26% of USC’s offensive formations. USC had success in gaining yardage in the Shotgun with 7.06 yards per play. However, while in the Shotgun, Barkley was sacked once, hit after the throw three times, and hurried five times. This means Barkley was hit or hurried on 45% of our Shotgun plays compared to 23% of the plays when we were under center.
USC also attempted spreading wide as well as playing tight. While USC definitely preferred to have the extra potential blockers with TE(s) and/or a FB, they did go with four or five WRs 13 times in the game. [Updated Note: As a forum poster pointed out, when I say 4-5 WR, I actually mean we lined up with 4-5 wide, meaning they line up wide to stretch the defense horizontally. I do not mean that we sent out 4-5 wide receivers. Often, I assume it would be 3 WR, TE, RB with maybe switching out a WR for another TE, RB, or maybe a FB. The key here is that USC attempted to stretch Stanford’s defense out horizontally]. Again, USC had greater success gaining yards by spreading the field out with an average gain of 8.9 yards when using 4+ wide receivers compared to 3.3 yard average when not. However, they also had much more pressure on the quarterback when spreading the field out. Barkley was hit or hurried on 46% of plays in which USC was spread out wide compared to 27% of plays when we were not.
USC also attempted to spread the ball out quickly by running a couple bubble screens. Unfortunately, since Stanford was able to get so much pressure in on Barkley without committing too many rushers, the defensive backs could simply play close in on the receivers and easily defend any quick route (such as the slant, bubble screen, etc). This resulted in two of USC’s four bubble screens being incomplete and another being stopped for a loss of two yards. The last bubble screen was successful in gaining 23 yards.
Many fans complain that USC did not run any running back screens, play action, or rollouts/bootlegs to try to mitigate the pressure. Unfortunately, none of these tactics would have likely worked. When your offensive line is being dominated across the board even when they are blocking, a running back screen becomes very obvious to the defensive linemen. All the defense needs is for one defender to pick up on this screen and defend it and the whole play falls apart very quickly (high percentage of interceptions or sacks if the screen is defended). USC did attempt some play action, but it was widely ineffective due to our running game never getting off the ground. Rollouts and bootlegs, or getting Barkley out of the pocket and away from the pressure, would not work because there was not a single point of pressure to roll away from. Furthermore, Stanford began spreading their outside LBs very wide (almost to the point that they were at our receivers) to mitigate any type of QB rollout. With their LBs that wide, there is no way to wall off the pressure on a rollout to allow Barkley to get away. They are also so wide that they would not even think about defending the run on a bootleg and that would just get Barkley killed.
Now let us turn our attention to the offensive line and how they played. I tracked who lost their individual battles or missed assignments. This could include things such as being driven back on a block, missing an assignment, or not picking up the blitz. Below you’ll see a chart with mistakes I found which shows the total number of mistakes (in blue) and then broken down by pass play (red) or run play (green). Please keep in mind that these “mistakes” are simply my opinion since it is somewhat subjective without knowing the actual assignments and play call. Furthermore, some of these mistakes could be marked as one player missing an assignment but in actuality it might be the center’s mistake for not switching the line protection call in response to a blitz look.
By my count, the Right Tackle position missed the most assignments or blocks followed by the center and the left tackle. However, across the board there were mistakes made by linemen in both the passing and run game. Some of these mistakes were fundamentals or execution errors (such as not getting leverage enough to hold the block), but a good portion of these mistakes were communication or mental errors (not picking up the blitz).
The offensive line played so poorly in this game that Barkley even got nailed very hard on a toss running play (the second touchdown that USC scored). When your quarterback is facing pressure on running plays, that is never a good sign.
The first half of the game saw Stanford running a number of ways to create confusion on our offensive line based on who was coming in. Since Stanford runs a 3-4 defensive scheme, the standard 4th pass rusher can come from any number of the linebacker spots which makes it more complex to block. Sometimes they would bring in an extra edge rusher while others they put send someone through the gut. See examples of various 4-man pressures that the 3-4 allows below.
Zone blocking concepts should take care of this as you block what defenders come into your assigned zone rather than trying to account for every potential rusher. However, our offensive line did not always seem to pick up their assignments. Some tricky fake blitzes were also run in the first half to throw off our zone blocking. Stanford would begin the play rushing six, but two of them would initiate contact with offensive linemen then break contact and drop into pass coverage. This caused linemen to initiate blocks against non-rushers, while other areas had noone left to block an actual rusher. These fake blitzes greatly confused USC’s offensive line and left a lot of free rushers in against Barkley. In the diagram below, the green arrows represent fake blitzers. See how they disrupt the offensive line’s assignments by forcing blockers to engage, then overload one side once the blockers have already engaged in their blocks. The result is two players who have noone left to block and one free rusher shooting through a gap.
Moving into the second half, Stanford adjusted their attack. Rather than using numbers and fake blitzes to mask where the pressure would come from, they started using twists. See the example of a defensive line twist below in the green arrows.
Zone blocking schemes are supposed to mitigate twists and stunts by the defense, as you are responsible for an area rather than a man so you simply block whomever comes into your area regardless if they twist or not. However, USC’s line again looked lost and did not pick up these moves well. In fact, on USC’s final drive, I counted four twist moves done by Stanford, none of which were picked up properly by the offensive line. These four plays resulted in two plays in which Barkley was sacked, one play Barkley was hit after the throw, and one hurry.
In total, I counted 10 plays in which Stanford ran either a fake blitz or a twist. Only two of them were picked up properly by USC’s front and one was non-effective for Stanford due to USC running a WR screen play. The rest resulted in two sacks, two hits after the throw, and two plays in which he was hurried.
How it affected USC’s Defense
I felt like USC’s defense actually played pretty well. In the first half, there was the one botched play where we allowed Taylor to go for 59 yards, but that was pretty much it. This single play accounted for 33% of Stanford’s production in the first half.
The second half was not so kind as the defense allowed 53 more yards in the second half than they did the first half. Much of this was due to the defense getting tired. This is what teams such as Stanford and Oregon do to you (although these teams get there in different manners).
Look at the time of possession discrepancy between the halves. In the first half, USC controlled the clock with 17:08 time of possession against Stanford’s 12:52. This comes to an average drive length of 2:08 for USC and 1:36 for Stanford. Even if you ignore the turnover drives, USC held Stanford to under one minute drives twice and almost a third time (drive was 1:07). USC’s shortest non-turnover drive was 1:06 followed by the next shortest drive which was 2:07. Move into the second half and these numbers flip. Stanford had the ball a total of 19:19 in the second half compared to USC’s 10:41, or almost a two to one ratio in favor of Stanford. This is time that our defense is out there getting tired and not having enough rest when the offense is out on the field. The average drive for Stanford’s 2nd half lasted 3:13 compared to USC’s 1:46. Ignoring Stanford’s endgame where they only took a knee, the shortest drive Stanford had was 2:05. Comparatively, USC had three drives under a minute long.
Now let us look at the number of plays and yards between the two halves. In the first half, USC averaged 4.6 plays per drive for 26.25 yards. In the second half, USC had 5.2 plays per drive but tanked to 13.0 yards per drive. This included four out of six drives being 3 and outs. For Stanford, the first half had only 3.75 plays per drive for 22.1 yards on average. This included four out of their eight drives being 3 and outs. However, in the second half, Stanford averaged 6.5 plays per drive for 39.8 yards. If you ignore their endgame kneel, this becomes 7.6 plays per drive for 48.2 yards on average.
Other Notable Mistakes
I felt like one issue that is definitely a consideration (but don’t have the means to test) is the speed at which Hobbi hikes the ball compared to Holmes. If a hike is slower, it takes the quarterback that much longer to get into his dropback and get ready for his throw. For shotgun, the velocity and placement of the ball can greatly affect how long the quarterback spends prior to actually looking downfield. There were a couple of notable times that you can see on the replays that the hike would come out offset, even when under center. Barkley would have to adjust, greatly slowing him down. One example is the touchdown run where Barkley pretty much took the hike between his hand and knee before being able to hand it off.
Another issue I noticed were uncalled false starts. There were at least two occasions where I saw a false start by LT Walker that were not called. Add one that was called on him late in the game as well which shows how antsy he was in his stance against the rush he knew was coming. To be fair, the RT also false started on this same play that Walker got called on, but the official chart will show this on Walker.
Finally, it was fairly evident that Stanford had our number in regards to our snap count. Because of this, Stanford often got the jump on our line and knew exactly how to time their blitzes to get the maximum momentum and leverage.
Football is a game that is won and lost in the trenches. When a team gets absolutely dominated up front, there is not much you can do to stop it. Your deep routes cannot develop. Your receivers start getting pressed and bumped off the line since the corners know they only need to prevent getting burned for a couple seconds before the quarterback has to get rid of the ball. Running plays won’t work when the offensive line can’t get a push which negates all possibility of play action. The list goes on and on.
Fortunately, Stanford’s front seven will most likely be the toughest we will face all season long. I do not expect our offensive line to potentially be dominated in this manner until we either have a rematch with Stanford in the conference championship game or our bowl game (depending on the opponent). Sure, our offensive line may be tested against other opponents that have strong fronts, but I believe none are to the level that Stanford is at. There should also be time to fix this issue and hopefully get our injured players back quickly. Either way, we should know a lot more about where this team is after this weekend’s game against Cal.