A Look at Two USC Offensive Plays at Stanford

This post will take a look at two key offensive plays in USC’s upset win on the road against Stanford.  We will look at Buck Allen’s 50 yard run and we will also look at a key 3rd down catch by Nelson Agholor.  Both these plays set up field goals which were the deciding factor in the game.

Buck Allen’s Run

Click here for a video of the play (you can use the refresh button to start the video again at the start of the play).

Buck Allen’s run comes on 1st and 10 on the USC 34 yard line.  There is 3:23 left in the 3rd quarter with USC trailing 10-7.  The run comes after three consecutive complete passes by USC to start the drive (adding the previous drive and it would make five consecutive passes by USC).

First, let’s look at the offensive play diagram.



The defense is lined up in a nickel front, probably due to the recent passing by USC.  The Defensive Ends are in the 5 technique (lined up in the gaps outside of our Tackles) and the Defensive Tackles are in the 2i technique on the strong side (shaded on the inside shoulder of our Left Guard) and the 3 technique on the weak side (in the gap between our RG and RT.

The meat of the play is in the blocking scheme and assignments.  The Tight End takes on the Defensive End nearest him and attempts to force him inward.  The Left Tackle double teams the Defensive Tackle alongside the Left Guard before he moves on to the next level and goes after the Linebacker.  The Center and the Right Tackle double team the other Defensive Tackle before our Right Tackle moves on and roams for another block to make (he goes after the Free Safety, but doesn’t have the speed to get to him for a block).  The Right Guard pulls across the formation, making this a “Power” running play.  The Right Guard moves across and goes to the outside of the Tight End, who is forcing his man inside.  The RG is now the lead blocker and will go after whoever is the greatest threat to the RB.  The RB will simply follow the lead block and make cuts as necessary.

On the outside, the left WR fakes a slant so that he can get inside leverage on the CB before blocking him.  On the right hand side, the TV angle never showed what those receivers were doing.  Based on the brief view of how the corners react to them, my best guess is that they did a decoy bubble screen look, which drew the CBs closer to them (and away from the running play).

Now let us look at some still images as the play progresses to see how this all played out.


This is how USC lines up presnap when they approach the line of scrimmage.  However, Kessler sees something and audibles out.



After the audible, the noticeable change is that we’ve flipped the RB’s position from the left to the right.  The audible may have been switching the play up to the running play or it may have been mirroring the play.  Hard to tell for sure.



After the snap, at the handoff merge point, you can see the two double teams happening on the offensive line (circled).  The Right Guard pulls behind these blocks.



The pulling guard now goes for the hole and looks for the greatest threat.  At this point, the greatest threat appears to be the Defensive End that the Tight End is blocking (circled).  The Left Tackle moves off from his double team and moves on to block the linebacker (red arrow).  The Strong Safety reads run and comes crashing down to the perimeter (yellow arrow).



The Tight End actually does a fine job taking out the Defensive End by pushing him inside.  The pulling guard now must change his direction for the new greatest threat which is the unblocked linebacker (red arrow).  The Left Tackle has already engaged the other linebacker at the second level.  The Strong Safety continues to crash down hard on the perimeter (yellow arrow).



Buck Allen sees the fast approaching Strong Safety on the perimeter (yellow arrow), so he cuts back inside (red arrow).



After making the cut, Allen has a very nice running lane.  The Strong Safety has effectively run himself out of the play.  Both linebackers are blocked.  The linebacker that was being blocked by the Left Tackle has over-pursued the original perimeter run and is now in poor position to defend the cutback.



Buck Allen easily makes it through the running lane.  The Free Safety is now crashing down on him at full speed.



Allen uses the Free Safety’s momentum against him by making a last second cut back to the outside.  The Free Safety cannot shift his weight fast enough resulting in a very weak tackle that Allen easily breaks through.  From there, it is green grass until the corners can catch up to him from the other side of the field.

Agholor’s Pass Play

Click here for the video.

Now let’s look at Agholor’s pass play.  Agholor’s play comes on a 3rd and 4 on the USC 31 yard line.  There is 5:10 left in the game with the game tied 10-10.  The pass comes after four consecutive running plays by USC to start the drive.

On this play, let us first look at how the Stanford Defense wanted to attack our front line compared to how we blocked it


Stanford’s plan was to send in a blitz with six players rushing the passer with heavy pressure coming from the strong side.  Three pass rushers would come in from the strong side edge, forcing either the TE or the RB to pick them up.  (A note that I am not entirely certain on the pass rush for the linebacker directly across from the Tight End.  To me, his initial steps and how the defense in general treats the Tight End suggests to me that he was in a pass rush, but more on this later.)

Each offensive lineman picked up the closest rusher as they formed the pocket.  Unfortunately, most of the blockers seem to get overwhelmed by the Stanford rush on this play.  The running back reads the blitz and ends up rolling to the left to help with the heavy pass rush.

The interesting aspect of this play is the Tight End.  The Tight End is running a route, but on the snap of the ball, he gives the linebacker across from him a huge shove and sends him reeling.  From here, it looks like the linebacker is disrupted so much by this push that he breaks off from pass rush and tries to defend the Tight End man to man.  It is possible that the linebacker was supposed to press the Tight End at the line and then play man to man with him rather than pass rush, but then the play of the defenders behind him don’t make much sense if this is the case, so I’m assuming the linebacker broke off from his pass rush after being driven backward a yard.  Even more on this later.

Let’s take a look at the passing routes and how the defense defends it.


It appears that the defense is running a variant of man to man coverage with a single high safety.  The three defenders off the line of scrimmage play the trips to the left in man to man but their coverage responsibilities are based on how the routes break.  Trips coverage can be tough to cover man to man since there is a lot of potential crossing going on, which leads to potential mix-ups or defenders running into each other.  You can also have offensive players who will rub or screen off each other as well.  Rather than have each defender assigned to a single man to follow in this mess, they each take a receiver after the routes break.  The outermost defender takes the outermost breaking route, the middle defender takes the middle route, and the weak side defender takes any crossing inside routes.

Now for the offensive side of the ball.  The lone receiver to the right’s full route isn’t showed on TV, but my guess is he runs a hitch probably to the first down marker’s depth.  As noted earlier, the Tight End jams the defender across from him before breaking out on his route.  It appears he is trying to run a seam or slant after jamming the defender, but he gets bumped multiple times and is forced inward.  The outside receiver crosses and runs a shallow in and is probably the outlet receiver.  The inner receiver, Agholor (shown in red), crosses underneath the other receiver and the Tight End, faking a wheel route.  However, about two yards past the line of scrimmage, Agholor cuts back inside on a slant route where he catches the ball.

Now let us look at some still images as the play progresses to see how this all played out.


Here is the look presnap.  Stanford shows pressure with six defenders on the line backed up by three more defenders backing them up.



At the snap of the ball, the Tight End engages with the defender across from him (circled).



The Tight End drives the defender back about a yard.  The Right Guard gets beat pretty bad at this point (circled).  I think he played a little bit flat footed off the snap which allowed the defender to get past and around him.  The other offensive linemen are getting driven back as well.



The defender that the Tight End has driven back decides to cover the Tight End man to man.  This leaves the Tight End now double covered with both defenders awkwardly playing him.  They aren’t bracketing him or anything of the sort.  The whole thing looked confused and broken down to me as they’re both jostling with him and taking outside leverage, which is why I think one of them was supposed to pass rush but aborted it.

Agholor is going towards the outside and is still behind the line of scrimmage.



Agholor crosses the line of scrimmage and is showing an outside route (red arrow).  The defender takes outside leverage in response.  Also note that the Right Guard has been completely beat at this point and the Defensive Lineman has an unblocked route straight to Kessler.



Agholor breaks inward quickly, putting the defender out of position since he has outside leverage.



The defender reacts to the inside break of Agholor, but it is too late at this point.  Kessler is already throwing the ball on the inside breaking route.  Not a moment too soon as he is about to get hit hard.



The ball is in the air here and it is wide open.



Agholor catches it with the defender still trying to catch up.



Agholor makes the Safety miss on a tackle by sidestepping him and continues on before getting tackled from behind.


Both of these plays were pivotal to USC’s victory against Stanford.  The long run lead to us getting within field goal range and the pass converted a first down to keep the drive alive before another field goal that decided the game.  Of course, the Defense played phenomenally and they put us in the position to win this game.  If I have time, I might take a look at a couple key defensive plays from this game as well, but that may have to wait until the bye week.


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