This post will look at a few of the key plays in the big win over Stanford. We will look at USC’s two touchdowns, the two point conversion, the first interception by USC, and the 4th and 2 play. I did not look at the 2nd interception by USC as it was mostly just chaos and didn’t have much I could write about. I also didn’t look at the blocked FG (looking back, that was huge) since it was mostly straightforward.
USC Touchdown #1
The situation: 8:52 left in the 1st quarter. Tied 0-0. 2nd and Goal on the Stanford 1 yard line.
ABC’s crew had a pretty good explanation what occurred, so I will mostly concentrate on things they didn’t mention. First, let us look at the formation that USC lined up in.
USC lined up in a power run I-formation with two tight ends. Both tight ends are lined up on the left side towards the field. I want to point out that USC is lined up very tight. Not only do they line up with two TEs and a FB as a lead blocker, but the OL is lined up very tight to each other. Here is an overhead view.
These OL splits are what are sometimes referred to as toe-to-toe splits. This makes it so that there are essentially no gaps and implies that USC intends to go for a large push up front and get the TD right up the middle behind that push, rather than trying to create a running lane. This is important as it provides a key misdirection in the play. Here is the defensive play call:
There wasn’t much to the defense’s play call. They intended to crash the middle of the field because of how USC lined up. Their interior defensive linemen came in hard and came in low, intending to create a pile which would make running up the gut difficult. The linebackers would spy and react to which direction the running back went towards. They had good perimeter coverage in case the running back attempted to avoid the pileup by going around it and had good interior coverage in case he tried to go airborne. Man coverage on the outside to our only WR. The linebacker who is circled would pick up the FB who leaked out on this play.
Now for the offense’s play call, as was well explained by the ABC crew:
USC would play action on the interior run. The fullback fakes like he intends to block the edge rush to the boundary. Instead, he leaks out to the flats, where the linebacker attempts to pick him up. However, the WR runs a pick and prevents the linebacker from being able to defend the flats. This brings the corner out of the play as he is following the WR and moving in the wrong direction to defend the flats. The running back picks up the edge rush that the FB fake blocked.
Let’s see it in action.
Here’s the play action. Notice the pile that Stanford had created. They expected the interior run and their linebackers are now moving into position to tackle the running back no matter where he goes. The fullback moves towards the edge rusher.
Here’s the fake handoff. The linebackers have creeped forward more and move towards the boundary side, which would be the direction that the running back would go towards if this were a run. The fullback does not engage with the edge rush and starts to leak outside. The WR makes his inward cut and now looks for his pick move.
The defense reacts to the fake handoff and starts to go into pass coverage. The running back picks up the edge blocker here. The WR sees the linebacker reacting towards the FB leaking out to the flats and goes in for the key block (circled).
Easy touchdown with noone there to defend the FB.
USC Touchdown #2
The situation: 2:42 left in the 1st quarter. Stanford lead 7-6. 1st and Goal on the Stanford 1 yard line.
USC again lines up in a power running formation.
This time, we have two tight ends and an H-back lined up on the boundary side of the play to the top of the screen. Xavier Grimble (another TE) is lined up to the field side on the bottom of the screen slightly wide. USC is showing a potential for a power run to the right. Let’s look at USC’s play call.
USC fakes the run to the right with their run blocking. The offensive line blocks more or less man up with the center breaking into the second level. The right tackle pulls to the right, again faking the run to the right. The H-back also moves in that direction. Both TEs key in on a linebacker in the second level. The running back takes one step to the right before running counter and going to the left for the pitch. Grimble delays on the bottom of the screen before blocking the LB in front of him.
Let’s see the play in action.
Here we have the one step fake to the right by the RB. The tackle has pulled and the H-back moves to the right. The three linebackers all bite on the misdirection by USC and all flow towards that side of the field. Grimble stands there as if he isn’t necessarily needed as a backside blocker since the outside linebacker isn’t rushing in.
The RB changes direction and a pitch is made to him going to the left. Grimble engages his block on the LB.
Great blocking by Xavier Grimble here. He had to engage that block for a long time as Buck Allen stretched the play to the sidelines.
USC Two-Point Conversion
The situation: 2:34 left in the 1st quarter. USC leads 12-7 after scoring a touchdown. This is the two-point conversion attempt that USC made due to missing the PAT on the initial TD.
USC lines up in Shotgun which signals a passing play (USC has rarely run out of Shotgun this season).
USC rolls Kessler out to the wide side of the field on the right. The offensive line and running backs all move with him to provide pass protection. This renders the TE lined up wide to the left as somewhat inconsequential, as the ball isn’t going to him on that type of rollout. Because of the TV angle, I also could not see what type of route this TE runs. Both Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor run out routes to the sideline, with Lee running the deeper route. This creates a simple high-low read for Kessler. In this type of read, the QB will watch where the zone defenders move to and hopefully catch them in a situation where there is one defender trying to defend both receivers. The running back to the right initially is in pass protection but leaks out once he perceives that there is no threats. My guess is that his route is to read the defenders and just find an empty spot to sit in as the checkdown.
Let’s look at the action.
Kessler rolls out to the right. The pass protection is good and USC has sealed off the back side. Agholor runs his short out route, initially 2 yards shy of the endzone (he later cuts up a little bit to be on the goalline). Lee is still running forward into the endzone.
The Stanford defense picks up the routes well. Both high-low receivers are covered and quickly running out of real estate. Vainuku leaks out on a route, trying to find space to get open. Kessler fires here to Lee since he has a slight step on the defender and is the best option at this point in time.
USC’s 1st Interception
The situation: 10:48 left in the 3rd quarter. Tied 17-17. 3rd and Goal on the USC 10 yard line.
Stanford lines up in Shotgun formation with four wide receivers, trips to the right.
Stanford sends three receivers on go routes and runs a short slant underneath. This is an attempt to vacate the underneath areas and catch the defenders backpedaling. If the slant isn’t open, Stanford likely finds a favorable one on one matchup on the streak and takes a shot at the endzone.
Here is USC’s defensive playcall.
The commentators thought that Bailey faked man coverage but was actually playing a zone. However, my interpretation in rewatching the play was that USC was in a base Cover-2 man defense the entire time. We will go more into Bailey’s actions in a bit. Bailey is initially covering the slot receiver (2nd one in from the top of the screen).
Let’s take a look at how this play unfolds.
The play begins and the receivers start their go routes. At this point, it could very easily be a 4 verticals play. Highlighted here are Bailey and who I believe is Josh Shaw. Bailey is man to man on the inside player and Shaw on the outside. At this point, the Stanford QB has already made his decision to throw to the slant since he has read man coverage and sees the depth that Shaw is playing the slant.
Here is the play as the outside receiver makes his break on the slant. Bailey and Shaw read this and do a coverage switch. Bailey also uses this opportunity to take a peek at the QB since he has some cushion for the slant receiver to get to him. It is important to note why this switch can be made. By reading the hips of both the inside and outside receivers, you can see what types of breaks they are making for their routes. The outside receiver has made a break on the slant while the inside receiver has not made a break. Based on the route tree, the next break that the inside receiver may make won’t be until he is 12-15 yards deep (basically once he reaches the endzone). (Read here for more on the route tree). Knowing this, the switch can safely be made for Bailey to cover the slant and Shaw to cover the deeper route.
The QB does not anticipate this switch and fires the ball to the slant. Bailey easily reads this since he peeked at the QB and saw the throw. Easy interception for Bailey.
USC’s 4th and 2
The situation: 1:23 left in the 4th quarter. Tied 17-17. 4th and 2 on the Stanford 48 yard line.
This was a pivotal play for USC as it would either win or lose the game for USC. With the way that Stanford was driving the ball in the 2nd half, they likely could have marched to field goal range if USC does not convert this 4th down. I don’t think punting the ball was considered very much as that would play right into how Stanford likes it: them with the ball and control of the clock in a tight game. Furthermore, overtime is always a concern when you have a depleted roster. Coach O wanted to win this game on his terms. There was no question Stanford knew USC would go for it as well. During the timeout, it was OC Helton gathering the offense around him, not Special Teams Coach Baxter gathering the punt coverage unit. It is worthwhile to mention that a couple plays earlier, Marqise Lee came off the field injured and hobbling. He would leave this play hobbling as well. This shows the character and devotion that Marqise Lee had to this team and this game.
USC came out of the timeout in Shotgun, again signalling a pass.
Here is USC’s play call.
Let’s take a look at the moment that the slants break.
Here is the moment that the slants break. Circled is Marqise Lee and his counterpart defender. At this moment, the play is essentially successful due to leverage. Coach Carroll has been known to say that a defender can pick either inside or outside coverage, but cannot possibly cover both. As a coach, if your defender is going to take inside or outside leverage, you must scheme to have something cover the opposite coverage (for example, having inside safety support or utilizing the sideline as outside leverage support etc). Here, the defender on Marqise Lee has picked outside leverage. His body is positioned slightly to the outside of Marqise’s, but more importantly his hips give away the direction he intends to cover (hips turned away towards the sideline). The reason the defender has likely picked outside leverage is due to the middle linebacker having short middle coverage. The defender is hoping that the linebacker will help him on any inside breaking routes.
Here, Marqise makes his move and breaks inside as the defender attempts to react. Kessler has already made his decision to pass to Marqise as he sees that Marqise will have a step on the defender. The timing is very key here. Hesitate at all and it allows the middle linebacker to react and jump the route.
This was a big win for USC. A lot of key plays helped USC pull off the upset, many which we have analyzed here. There were a couple other key plays in this game, such as Stanford’s two TDs, the blocked FG, the second interception, Stanford’s sack caused fumble, etc, but these were all fairly straightforward and I didn’t feel like they warranted much analysis. I will hopefully have time to do a bit of statistical analysis of the Stanford game throughout this week. It was an exciting game, so I want to get as much information down as possible.