USC fired head coach and play caller Lane Kiffin after five games this season. This past Thursday, OC Clay Helton got his first chance to call the plays for the USC offense. This post will just be a stats driven comparison between Lane Kiffin’s playcalling and Clay Helton. This post will deal mostly with just high level runs vs passes.
In the first five games this season, Kiffin called a running play 58% of the time. Against Arizona, Helton called 60% run plays. Overall, they are pretty close. Let us break this down further in a number of different viewpoints: by down, by field position, and by quarter. All graphs in this post look at the percentage of plays that were running plays (so, if you want the percentage of passing plays, it would be the inverse).
Play Calling by Down
First, let us take a look at the play calling by down.
Helton overall relied much more on the run on 1st down. Many OCs like to do this as it helps keep 2nd and 3rd downs manageable. Kiffin and Helton were more or less the same on 2nd down. For 3rd down, Helton relied almost solely on the pass (more on this later)
Let’s add a few notes based on the distances to go for each down type.
On first downs just after a penalty (1st and 15+ yards to go), Kiffin called a running play on six out of seven instances (86%). In three instances against Arizona, Helton called a running play only once (33%). Helton was much more aggressive in attempting to get those yards from penalties back through the air.
On 2nd and 7-10 yards to go, Kiffin called a running play 62% of the time. Helton called a running play 42% of the time. 2nd and 7-10 yards to go is a situation where the run is still a major threat and is very useful to get yourself into 3rd and medium (or hopefully, 3rd and short). Helton again was much more aggressive in trying to straight up convert the 2nd and longs or gain the yardage through the air. If it was 2nd and 11+ the threat of the run is not as prominent, and Kiffin and Helton had very similar numbers.
Helton did not have any 3rd and shorts in his game against Arizona (his tendency to throw on 2nd and 7-10 may be a factor here). For 3rd and longs, Kiffin ran the ball 28% of the time. Helton ran the ball 20% of the time in this situation. However, it is worthwhile to note that one of Helton’s “runs” on 3rd and long against Arizona was a called pass play in which Cody Kessler took off when the play broke down and gained 34 yards on the ground. The only other run on 3rd and long was the last true running play of the Arizona game where Silas Redd converted a 3rd and 8 to get 1st down and effectively run out the clock with two QB kneels.
Play Calling by Field Position
Now let us look at the play calling by field position. Note that “Red Zone” plays in the chart below also include anything that is in the “Goal to Go” category.
As can be seen here, Helton relied more on the run when we were on our own side of the field. He also relied much more on the run when in the red zone. However, when just inside the opponent’s side of the field, Helton threw the ball much more than Kiffin did. Many of these plays were those deep passes towards the endzone that we saw attempted against Arizona. This is a fairly safe area to open up the playbook as you have already flipped the field (if you have to punt, you can easily pin the opponents back against their own endzone).
Play Calling by Quarter
Finally, let us look at the play calling by quarter.
As can be seen in this graph, Helton passed the ball much more in the 1st and 3rd quarters than Kiffin did. Conversely, Helton ran the ball much more than Kiffin did in the 2nd and 4th quarters. The 4th quarter could easily be explained with the circumstances of the Arizona game. We had a big lead and were more interested in running out the clock than throwing the ball.
It is worthwhile to note that being more aggressive and passing the ball more is not necessarily the “correct” thing to do. It is all based on the circumstances of the situation. Kiffin was often overly conservative and played possession football to try to control the clock. Helton wanted to test Arizona deep and it was successful for him. It will definitely be very interesting to watch how Helton calls plays for the remainder of the season and we can revisit this topic with a much larger sample size for OC Helton.