This post will take a quick look into the 2nd touchdown that USC scored against Utah State. Cody Kessler connected with Xavier Grimble for a 30 yard touchdown pass to put USC up 14-7 with 5:13 left in the 2nd quarter.
I felt that the TV camera angles made this play a little difficult to distinguish what was happening exactly, and the crews did not expand on it much. I believe that the primary reason why this play worked was because excellent recognition from Cody Kessler, most likely stemming from film review with the coaches on Utah State’s defensive tendencies.
First, some quick background on the situation. USC is tied 7-7 with Utah State and is driving with 5:28 remaining in the first half. The ball is on the Utah State 30 yard line. On the previous play, Marqise Lee had just converted on a 3rd and 5 with a nine yard gain, but had tweaked his ankle a bit and was sidelined.
First, let’s take a look at the play presnap.
USC comes out under center in an Ace formation with two tight ends, one on each side. Both receivers are lined up relatively tight to the line with Nelson Agholor on the right (bottom of the screen). After surveying the defense, Cody Kessler signals to his receivers and they both widen to the numbers on the field. This causes the corners to also widen and the safety, who had dropped down to the box, to retreat back deep.
It is hard to say what exactly Cody Kessler saw prior to the play. Did he audible and completely change the play? Was this built directly into the play as a read option? Or did something trigger from film review which keyed into what the defense might be playing?
Let us take a look at the offensive play’s diagram.
USC is simply going to flood the deep zones on this play. Both receivers are running deep go routes to the outside of their respective cornerbacks. Xavier Grimble, lined up on the left side of the line, is also running a go route. The running back initially pass protects to the right side before releasing to the flats as the checkdown. The right side tight end is staying in pass protection. The entire line slide protects to the left.
Now let us look at the defensive play call.
Utah State called a basic Cover 2 Zone play with their cornerbacks in press and playing bump and run to try to disrupt the timing of our passing routes. The two safeties not shown in the frame are each playing half field deep coverage. The pass rush will come entirely on our left side, which the offensive line slides to protect very well.
Let us take a look at an X’s and O’s diagram of the Cover 2 zone defense.
One of the weak spots of this coverage is the deep middle seam that naturally occurs between the safeties. Half a field is a lot of space to be asking for your safeties to cover. Each zone is nearly 27 yards wide. This is compounded if the offense overloads the zones by sending more receivers deep than the defense has deep zone defenders. This is exactly what USC did when they sent both WRs deep down the sidelines, which stretch the safeties even further out, and then send the TE down the seam.
Let us look at the play just after the ball is snapped.
Kessler is looking in Nelson Agholor’s direction and does a quick pump fake. This causes the linebackers to jump a little bit in that direction (you can see this clearly in the back view on the replay). The safety on Agholor’s side of the field likely jumps more towards the sidelines as well, although this isn’t caught on the TV angles. This further opens up the TE in the seams.
By this point, Kessler has read the defense in a Cover 2 Zone (I think he may have even suspected they would be in a Cover 2 pre-snap as well, but by now he would have confirmed it). Given the play calls for each side, it is pretty much already predetermined as a touchdown.
Kessler simply waits for Grimble to pass beyond the linebacker’s zone and it is wide open for the pitch and catch. Both safeties are stretched too wide to converge in time and can’t even make contact with Grimble until he is about two yards deep into the endzone. [Side note: the missing linebacker in the 2nd short zone from the bottom is out of the picture as he properly picks up the RB who has gone out to the flats.]
In conclusion, I chalk this successful play up to strong recognition by Kessler and a solid play design to exploit the Cover 2 defense. This touchdown was likely due to film study and preparation going into the game.