An Analysis of Two Buck Allen Runs against Arizona

This post will look at two touchdown runs by Buck Allen in USC’s road win at Arizona.  The first run was a 34 yard run late in the 1st quarter while the second was a 48 yard run early in the 2nd quarter.  These were the first two touchdowns by USC in the game.

Allen’s 1st Touchdown Run

I really loved rewatching the first touchdown run by Allen.  This is because it was near flawless execution of one of my favorite plays in football: the power run.  First, here’s a link to the video:

Let’s look at the play diagram presnap.


USC lines up in the shotgun with the strong side to the right.  Arizona counters by lining up tight.  The corners are playing press coverage and Arizona puts five on the line with one linebacker playing right behind the linemen and the other linebacker at normal depth.  There is a single high safety.  USC motions the wide receiver on the boundary from the right to the left which brings the cornerback across the field as well.

Let’s look at what the defense does first.


The corners play all three receivers in man to man coverage (including the receiver in motion).  Arizona sends in a blitz with six pass rushers.  They try to overload the right side and get a good push up the middle between the center and the right guard.  The linebacker who doesn’t rush in is likely the perimeter force player who has the responsibility to force any runs back inside.

Now for the offense’s play call.


The receivers on the left fake as if they are blocking for a swing pass / wide receiver screen to the receiver in motion.  This keeps backside secondary players on the left side away from the play and also probably helps freeze the safety.

The more interesting things are happening up front in the blocking scheme.  The backside (left) linebacker who is on the line of scrimmage is left unblocked.  Instead, the left tackle goes in and blocks the left defensive end.  The center and right guard block the nose tackle which also bottles up the blitzing middle linebacker.

Now for the key blocks.  The right tackle is the seal block.  He gets the right defensive end and turns him towards the center of the field, effectively walling off any defenders from coming from the backside of the play.  The tight end takes on the right outside linebacker and is the “kick out” player.  He turns the outside linebacker and walls off the other side, creating an alley for the running back to go through.  The left guard pulls from the the backside and is the lead blocker for the running back.  This “pulling guard” will take on whoever is the greatest threat; in this case, it is the linebacker who we noted as the perimeter force player.

Let’s take a look at how this play unfolds.  Luckily, the TV broadcast showed this play from both the sideline standard TV angle as well as the angle from behind the offense, which gives us a great view for analysis.

Here is the pre-snap look for the play.  Not too much interesting going on yet.


This is the play at the snap.  The man in motion draws the cornerback across the formation (red arrows).  This further opens up the play side.


The snap of the ball is high.  Luckily this didn’t affect the timing of the play.  The left guard starts to pull across the formation (circled in the top screen).


The key blocks are starting to happen here.  The right tackle has turned his defender in and walled off the play (circled in red on the top).  His positioning is perfect as it makes it so that none of the interior defenders have a direct route to the alley.  The running alley is clearly seen in the bottom picture with the red lines outlining it.  The backside linebacker is unblocked and has the highest opportunity to blow up the play (yellow arrows).


The backside linebacker that was mentioned above takes a route for the quarterback.  He must have read play action or thought the high snap would disrupt the run’s timing.  This takes himself out of the play.  The pulling guard takes on the linebacker and everyone is still keeping on their blocks.  This means that the only player who can now make the play on the running back is the free safety.


Allen jukes and outruns the free safety, solidifying the touchdown.


Allen’s 2nd Touchdown Run

Now let’s look at the 2nd touchdown run by Allen.  This play is also a power run, but goes more towards the inside.  Here is a link to the video of the play:

First, let’s look at the presnap diagram.


This time, USC lines up in a Pistol formation with the strong side to the right.  The defense lines up with with eight men in the box.  USC motions the left receiver behind the Quarterback, similar to the other play that we looked at.  The defense responds by rolling almost the entire secondary.  The corner who was on the motion receiver moves back towards the safety.  The linebacker on the left moves closer into the box.  The right side linebacker moves up to the line of scrimmage.  The safety rolls down and right to defend the swing pass and the end around.  The right side corner goes from press to loose coverage.

Now let’s see the defensive play diagram.

The left corner continues to drop back as the deep coverage zone.  The safety rolls down to crash on the motion receiver while the right corner plays man to man on his receiver.  The defense blitzes five with the right linebacker going in.  The other linebackers roll to the right to cover the gaps and play fairly close in.

Let’s look at the offense’s response here.

On the right side, the receivers again fake a swing pass with the right receiver going in for a block on the safety.  Now for the front line blocking scheme.  The left tackle just stays on the defensive end who is trying to go wide.  The left tackle is perfectly happy to let this defender get to the backfield since it will take himself out of the play.  The left guard pulls and combos with the fullback as the “kick-out” block.  The center blocks the nose tackle across from him and keeps him backside.  The right guard and right tackle both combo on the defensive tackle to push him backwards.  This helps generate a huge running lane for Buck Allen.  After getting a good backward push on the defensive tackle, the right guard then moves on to block one of the linebackers.  The tight end picks up the blitzing linebacker and blocks him.

Now let’s look at how the play unfolds.  For most of the play there were two angles shown on the TV broadcast: one standard TV angle and one wide, zoomed-out angle.

Here is a look at the play presnap.


This is the play at the snap of the ball.  The motion of the receiver (yellow arrow) causes the defense to shift (red arrows).  The defense is fairly loaded with eight players in the box and showing blitz.


This is the play at the handoff and when things start to get really interesting.  On the top view, you can see the pulling guard (red circle).  You can also see the double team blocking (yellow circle) which helps drive the Arizona line backwards.  On the bottom view, you can see the threat of the swing pass (red arrow).  This draws the safety down (yellow arrow) and pulls him away from the play.


Here is the play shortly after the handoff.  There is a lot of interesting stuff here, so we’ll take multiple looks at this.  First thing to note is that the right guard has released his double team now that the defensive lineman has been driven back and is controlled by the right tackle (yellow circle).  Not only has the right tackle controlled the block, but he has also managed to turn the defensive lineman, which is key to creating the running lane.  The right guard is now at the second level blocking a linebacker (red circle).


The next thing I wanted to point out is the center (red circle).  The center has driven the nose tackle a good two yards past the line of scrimmage and continues to drive him backward and imposing his will.  This is important because it puts the outside linebacker (yellow circle) out of position as he is now walled off from making a play (green line in the bottom image).


Going over to the right side now.  One of the middle linebackers has taken a really poor angle (red circle with arrow).  He takes the outside, possibly because he thinks this will be a perimeter run due to the fullback and pulling guard both going wide.  Had he taken the inside lane, this run probably gets stopped for a short gain of a few yards falling forward or even for no gain.  Instead, this linebacker gets walled off himself due to poor positioning (green line in the bottom image).


Buck Allen hits the hole hard.  The blocks are good and you can see the alley he has in the top image.  Now the only player in position to make any sort of stop is the corner who has rolled up top (red circle and arrow on bottom image).  The corner comes crashing down now.


However, the corner takes a poor angle.  He crashes inside (red arrow) which allows Buck Allen to simply sidestep him towards the outside (yellow arrow).  Had the corner played more of a contain or as a “force” player, he had help coming from the backside (two players circled in red on the bottom image).



These were two picture perfect examples of power running plays by USC and by Buck Allen.  Both show great blocking and execution to get to the second level players.  Both also show how Coach Sarkisian has melded concepts to spread the defense out horizontally by having the threat of the swing pass while also running the ball with power.


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.

USC vs Stanford ’13 – Analysis of Key Plays

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.

Click here to view the video of the play

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.

Click here to view the video of the play

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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_TD2_6Because of the misdirection, there is noone on the Stanford defense who is in position to make a play.  Touchdown.

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.

Click here to view the video of the play

USC lines up in Shotgun which signals a passing play (USC has rarely run out of Shotgun this season).

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_2Pt_1_PreMotionAgholor initially lines up in the slot on the left side, but we motion him across the field.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_2Pt_2_FormationBased on the defense’s general lack of reaction to the motion, USC can read that Stanford is likely playing a zone defense to cover the goal line.  Here’s USC’s play call.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_2Pt_3_OffensivePlaycallUSC 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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_2Pt_4Kessler 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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_2Pt_5The 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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_2Pt_6Marqise Lee does what he does and makes a spectacular catch on the sidelines and drags both feet in bounds for a two point conversion.

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.

Click here to view the video of the play

Stanford lines up in Shotgun formation with four wide receivers, trips to the right.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_Int1_1_FormationUSC lines up in their Nickel package with two down linemen, two stand-up defensive ends and two linebackers.  Most of the receivers are covered loosely by the secondary.  Here is Stanford’s play call.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_Int1_2_Offensive_PlaycallStanford 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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_Int1_3_Defensive_PlaycallThe 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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_Int1_4The 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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_Int1_5Here 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.

Click here to view the video of the play

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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_4and2_1_PreMotionMarqise Lee initially lined up on the left side of the field in the H-back position, but motioned to the right.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_4and2_2_FormationBased on the defense’s initial set (how they pointed and lined up pre-motion) and also their reaction to the motion, USC could read that the defense was likely in man-to-man coverage.

Here is USC’s play call.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_4and2_3_Offensive_PlaycallUSC dialed up an all-slants play call.  It appeared that the inside slants were the primary reads.

Let’s take a look at the moment that the slants break.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_4and2_4_LeverageHere 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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_4and2_5_CutHere, 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.

2013_USC_vs_Stanford_USC_4and2_6Kessler hits Marqise Lee right where he needed to and the ball arrives before the middle linebacker has time to react.


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.

USC at Oregon St Interceptions

This post will look at the interceptions by both USC and Oregon State in the day-after-Halloween game up in Corvallis.  These turnovers helped swing the momentum of the game in either direction and really set the tone.  Let us take a look at each interception in terms of the offensive and defensive playcall as well as what transpired on the field.

Oregon St. Interception #1

The situation: 12:25 left in the 2nd Quarter, USC up 14-0.  1st and 10 on the USC 16 yardline.

Click here to view the video of this interception

The offensive Playcall:

Oregon State's playcall

Oregon State’s playcall

Oregon State comes out in a single back, balanced two tight end set with both receivers lined up towards the boundary side of the field.  The boundary wide receiver goes into motion presnap as Oregon State called a double play action fake in this play.  They faked the fly sweep motion and also faked the off tackle handoff to the running back.  They expected the combination of these two actions to stretch our defense out horizontally and strain the defense.  The slot receiver would take the safety away by running a post route.  This left the tight end on the left side, who would sell the run block for the off tackle run but would then leak out and wheel out into the area vacated by the slot receiver.  It is actually a pretty well designed play.

The defensive playcall:

USC's playcall

USC’s playcall

USC comes out in their base 5-2 defense.  Because of the WR in motion, our safety and corner make a switch with Josh Shaw now covering the deep zone and the safety coming down hard on the potential fly sweep.  The corner on the top of the screen also helps on the fly sweep.  The slot receiver is covered man to man.  The outside and inside linebacker to our defense’s right (bottom of the screen) cover the flats.  The defensive end on that side starts with a pass rush but eventually also drops into the flats.  The inside linebacker on the far side of the field does a delayed blitz.

The play unfolds:

The play at the point of play action.

The play at the point of play action.

Here is the play as it is at the point of the play action.  The fly sweep is well defended with the safety and corner both there to contain and make the tackle.  Three linebackers are ready to take on the off tackle run (the outside linebacker would take on the block by the TE and be the contain man, forcing the running back towards the two other inside linebackers).

Secondary moves on both sides happen after a delay.

Secondary moves on both sides happen after a delay.

After a delay, the secondary moves activate for each side.  On Oregon State’s side, the Tight End leaks out into a passing route (unfortunately for him, USC didn’t send any rushers into his zone, which makes it harder for him to fake the block before leaking out).  On USC’s side, the inside linebacker goes in on a delayed blitz now that the pass blocking assignments are already set in, giving him a clear rushing lane at the QB.

All routes are well defended.

All routes are well defended.

At this point, USC has the play well defended.  The TE who has leaked out already has two potential defenders on him (yellow lines).  One of those defenders also has a good angle on the running back in the flats should the QB decide to checkdown.

Throw is made to the TE

Throw is made to the TE

The post is well defended and the QB believes that Josh Shaw has also followed the post receiver.  The throw is made to the TE.  However, Shaw reads this well and makes a break on the pass, easily getting over the top of the TE.

The interception

The interception

Easy interception for Shaw in the endzone since the ball is overthrown.  Had the ball been properly thrown, I still believe Shaw would have the angle to intercept it or at least bat it down.

USC Interception

The situation: 9:43 left in the 2nd Quarter, USC up 14-7, first play after an OSU score.  1st and 10 on the USC 25 yardline.

Click here to view the video of this interception

The offensive playcall:

USC's playcall

USC’s playcall

USC came out in a weak offset I with one receiver on either side.  Playaction was called on an off tackle run.  The receiver to the top of the screen would run a deep out.  The receiver on the bottom of the screen runs some unknown deep route (not seen on the camera angle).

The defensive playcall:

2 Defense Play Diagram

Oregon State’s playcall

Oregon State bites pretty hard on the play action with all of their linebackers moving in the direction of the fake run.  The safety on the bottom of the screen also bites.  Both corners are playing man coverage on the receivers (yellow dotted line), but the corner on the top of the screen bites on the play action.  The safety at the top of the screen moves into deep coverage.

The play unfolds:

Oregon State bites on the play action

Oregon State bites on the play action

This shot shows the point of the play action.  All three linebackers and the cornerback to that side bite on the play action.  This leaves the receiver on that side of the field one on one with loose coverage by the safety.

Oregon State's defenders react to the play action.

Oregon State’s defenders react to the play action.

Oregon State’s defenders realize the fake and react accordingly.  The corner and one of the linebackers drop back to defend the receiver and the two other linebackers blitz in.

Kessler's pass

Kessler’s pass

Kessler throws the ball to the receiver on the deep out.  I believe Kessler threw the ball a bit late and gave the corner too much time to react and get back on the route.  This allowed him to sit, read, and intercept the ball easily.

The deep out is a very tough throw to make.  You need a lot of arm strength to get the ball out there before the defense can react (and before your receiver hits the sidelines).  In this case, the throw probably should have been made before the receiver even made his cut.  The throw comes out late, the corner has time to recover from the play action,makes a play on the ball, and runs it back for a TD.

Oregon State Interception #2

The situation: 12:51 left in the 4th Quarter, USC up 31-14.  1st and Goal on the USC 5 yardline.

Click here to view the video of this interception

The offensive playcall:

Oregon State's playcall

Oregon State’s playcall

Oregon State lines up in a a strong I formation with both TEs on the same side of the field  and calls another play action pass.  This play is similar in design to the first interception.  The receiver runs a post route to draw off the safety.  The TE fakes the block for the play action and then leaks out to the area vacated by the post route.  The fullback is in the flats as the checkdown and the running back stays in to block.

The defensive playcall:

USC's playcall

USC’s playcall

USC’s playcall is pretty simple.  The cornerback and the safety are both playing the wide receiver.  The corner plays outside leverage as he knows the safety has inside coverage against the post or dig routes.  The inside linebackers are in man to man coverage against the running back and fullback.  Dion Bailey has man coverage on the tight end who leaks out.

The play unfolds:

The point of the play action.

The point of the play action.

Here is the play at the point of play action.  There is good outside contain defense against the run which would have forced the running back inside.  The corner establishes his outside leverage against the receiver with the safety helping inside.

USC's pass coverage

USC’s pass coverage

Oregon State sets up to pass and does not have much.  The fullback is now double covered out in the flats.  The post route is also double covered.  Dion Bailey has already sniffed out the leaking TE and is in coverage against him.  The running back is also covered (although he is not going out for a route but instead tries to cut block one of the pass rushers).  Also at this point, the defensive front is starting to make their penetration moves and get through the blocks.

Dion Bailey has eyes on the QB.

Dion Bailey has eyes on the QB.

This frame is pretty key to the interception.  As you can see here, Dion Bailey is in tight coverage against the TE.  He has his hand touching the TE to better establish the position of the TE which allows his eyes to be on the QB.  This allows Bailey to easily see the pass being made and jump the route.

Bailey jumps the route

Bailey jumps the route

Here, you see Dion Bailey jumping the route.  The cornerback also had eyes on the QB and provides help over the top (since the post is now covered by the safety).

Oregon State Interception #3

The situation: 4:16 left in the 4th Quarter, USC up 31-14.  1st and 10 on the USC 30 yardline.

Click here to view the video of this interception

The offensive playcall:

Oregon State's playcall

Oregon State’s playcall

Oregon State comes out in the I formation with a receiver on either side.  The receiver who is just out of the frame on the top runs a go route.  The receiver on the bottom of the screen runs a deep in route (dig route).  The TE does a shallow in route, creating a high-low with the receiver on the bottom of the screen.  Both running backs run shallow routes, one going in each direction.

The defensive playcall:

USC's playcall

USC’s playcall

After showing blitz, USC is in a pretty simple Cover-2 man.  The two safeties who are off the screen to the right are playing half field deep zone coverage.  The linebacker with the red arrow may be playing a shallow zone as well and picks up the crossing TE.

The play unfolds:

The point of the play action

The point of the play action

USC does not bite whatsoever on the playaction.  The linebackers don’t react at all and the corners cover their man.

Defenders bracket the receivers.

Defenders bracket the receivers.

The TE has crossed the field and is now bracketed by two linebackers.  Just off the screen, the receiver on the dig route is also bracketed by the corner and safety.  The fullback (guy on the yardline running towards the top of the screen) has been picked up by a linebacker.

The throw is made to the dig route

The throw is made to the dig route

The ball is thrown to the dig route.  You can clearly see the TE (bottom center of the screen) and the dig route receiver being bracketed here.  On the top right corner you can see the corner covering the go route receiver and the other safety should have been on top of that, also bracketing that receiver.  The fullback is defended on the top left of the screen.  However, this left the running back completely wide open on the center left of the screen (circled).  Had the QB been more patient, that is an easy completion instead of forcing the ball into double coverage.


USC played strong defense and was able to react well to the play action passes by Oregon State.  By taking away both the run and the screen, play action stood little chance.  This lead to three timely interceptions by USC’s defense which helped preserve the lead and come home from a tough road game with a W.

USC vs Utah St. Tight End Touchdown Analysis

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.

Click here to see a video of the play

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's formation coming out of the huddle.

USC’s formation coming out of the huddle.

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.

The play design for the offense.

The play design for the offense.

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's defensive call.

Utah State’s defensive 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.

The Cover 2 Zone defense.

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.

Three steps into the Quarterback's drop.

Three steps into the Quarterback’s drop.

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.

The point at which the ball was caught.

The point at which the ball was caught.

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.

Click here to rewatch the video of the play (now that you know exactly what happened)

A Look Back at Hawaii

The first game (and win) is in the books for the 2013 USC football season.  It sure wasn’t pretty, but it wasn’t ugly either.  The team was plagued with inconsistencies, but they didn’t leave too many big negatives and had a couple big positives.  Overall, there’s a lot to improve on, but this team definitely has potential.

This post will look at a few aspects of the game.  First, we will look at the offensive side of the ball.  We will start with the unfortunate safety which occurred early in the 2nd quarter then we will take a brief look at the running game.  Then we will switch over to the defensive side of the ball by looking at the blitzing numbers and the sacks.

The Safety

Early in the 2nd quarter, Hawaii punted the ball and it rolled to the 1 yard line.  Kiffin dialed up a passing play for the first play of the drive, figuring Hawaii would send heavy run pressure up the middle (they did with six rushers and a spy).  Note that by this point in the game, USC hadn’t gotten almost any running game going.  Hawaii was winning in the trenches and getting a strong push up front, leading to USC only having 24 yards on 10 runs (2.4 yards per carry).  Not exactly conducive to a high success rate running the ball with your back to the endzone, so I can understand why Kiffin chose to go with a pass.  On the flip side, the pass wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders either.  At this point in the game, Kessler was 4/8 for 39 yards (4.9 yards per pass attempt).

View the play here

So let’s take a closer look at the play and how it was designed.

The play design

The play design

As you can see here, the play is pretty simple.  Agholor is on the left (bottom of the screen) and is running a slant route.  The slot receiver (who I believe is actually a TE spread out wide) is also running a slant, although at a greater depth than Agholor.  Marquise Lee is running a go route down the sidelines and appears to be a decoy.  The TE on the left quick blocks the outside linebacker and then transitions into the flats as the checkdown.

The primary receiver in this play is Agholor.  His slant route should be a 3-step drop and get rid of the ball.  Here we are at three steps.

The play after the 3-step drop.

The play after the 3-step drop

Kessler is looking at his primary read, Agholor, who has just broken into his slant pattern.  Kessler would first notice the depth at which the corner is playing off from Agholor, which is a perfect for the slant.  However, Kessler also sees the linebacker spy, who is moving to defend the checkdown TE in the flats.  This linebacker poses a problem as he is moving into the passing lane and could easily pick off the slant route.  First positive here is that Kessler doesn’t force the throw after he identifies that his primary read is not safe.  First mistake, rather than moving through his progression, Kessler hesitates.  His hesitation wasn’t long in real time for how much processing must be happening in his head during his first game ever (and on the road).  I timed it at just under a second too long.  However, a full second is an eternity for a quarterback in football.

After a split second, Kessler moves on to his second read

After a second, Kessler moves on to his second read

Kessler waits for that second, possibly waiting for Agholor to get past the linebacker or just thinking too much about what comes next.  Finally, Kessler turns to his second read.  The second read is the slot receiver, also on a slant.  With the assumption that the defense will be playing the run, you can expect the middle of the field to vacate as the linebackers blitz in to plug the running lanes.  This usually means that one of the two slant routes should be open.  In this case, the slot receiver is defended in press coverage, but was one-on-one with pretty good body position on the defender.  This is probably a safe enough throw if you throw directly at the receiver’s numbers or even slightly behind him (throw ahead of him and the defender might be able to get a handle on it).  With the amount of contact being made, you might even get a pass interference call.

However, none of this matters.  With that second of hesitation before moving to his second progression, the pressure was already in his face.  Hawaii got a great push up front right at the snap of the ball and Kessler hesitated just a hair too long, which combined creates a sack for a safety.

Running Lanes

USC’s run game was bottled up early in the game, but started to open up in the second half.  Personally, I think the run game opened up as the Hawaii defense got tired.  I believe that it was one of those games where the underdog team in week one is amped up when they are going stride for stride, but fails to pace themselves properly.

Another major impact on our running game (and run game play calling) was the fact that all our right guards were banged up, and thus playing injured.  This leads the coaching staff to attempt to run away from this position, which makes our running game a bit more predictable.  Let’s take a look at the histogram for what gaps we ran the ball to.

The number of times we called running plays to each gap

The number of times we called running plays to each gap

As you can see here, 24 runs to the left side and 18 runs to the right, or 33% more left runs than right.  Overall, both sides produced nearly equally.  The left side of the line averaged 4.9 yards per carry while the right side averaged 5.6 yards per carry.  Let’s break it down further.

There were more runs to the left side going to the interior (to the A or B gaps).  14 runs went to the left interior gaps compared to 9 on the right.  The left interior runs also averaged 5.4 yards per carry compared to only 1.7 yards per carry on the right.  Looking at only the A gaps, there were 12 runs to the left A gap for 3.75 yards per carry compared to 7 runs to the right A gap for 0.9 yards per carry.  This seems to suggest that the right guards playing thru injury had a decent impact on our interior running game and play calling.  Expect this to improve as our right guards heal up.

The number of perimeter runs (to the C or D gaps) was about equal between the left and right sides.  However, the perimeter runs to the right side were more effective, averaging 9.4 yards per carry on the right compared to 3.5 yards per carry on the left.  Chalk that up to having a Senior in Kevin Graf manning the right tackle spot compared to Redshirt Freshman Chad Wheeler on the left.

Defensive Blitzing

Overall the defense played really well.  We held Hawaii to 231 total yards and only 23 rushing yards, which is 0.7 yards per carry  (although if you remove sacks from rushing, you’re looking at 2.2 yards per carry).  On the passing game side, you’re looking at seven sacks and four interceptions.  Wow.  The defensive front dominated the game.  The secondary had some weak spots and were out of position on a couple plays.  Luckily, Hawaii was not able to capitalize.

Anyways, let’s take a look at some numbers.  Pendergast was his normal aggressive self.  I tracked that Pendergast blitzed at least one extra rusher on 61% of plays.  Typically, Pendergast would send in five rushers for a +1 blitz.


It generally worked as well.  When not blitzing, USC’s defense allowed an average of 4.1 yards per play.  When USC blitzed, that dropped down to 2.4 yards allowed per play.  Hawaii’s offense definitely could not handle the extra pressure.

The blitzes came from different directions as well, adding to the confusion.


Pendergast would typically blitz the linebackers.  However, he wasn’t against sending in the cornerbacks or safeties on blitzes as well.

One interesting thing to note is that all of our sacks came on plays with a blitz.  I have done quick diagrams of all the sack plays and the blitz pressure that we brought here.  The yellow arrows indicated that the players that broke free from blocks and played a key role in getting the sack.

Sack 1
Sack 2
Sack 3
Sack 4
Sack 5
Sack 6
Sack 7

Most of the sacks were +1 blitzes with the additional rushers coming from the linebacker spots.

One interesting note is that three of the four interceptions came on plays in which USC did not blitz.  I would have expected the interceptions to come off the pressure of a blitz, but this was not the case.


On the offensive side of the ball, I expect our run game to improve a good amount when we get healthy.  This includes getting Silas Redd back as well as healing up at the right guard spot.  Once the run game picks up, I expect the passing game to improve (like it did in the second half against Hawaii).

On the defensive side of the ball, expect us to continue to play aggressively and to have aggressive play calling.  I don’t expect quite as much blitzing in our upcoming game against Washington State due to their offensive play style,  but I am hoping for a number of interceptions.

An (Amateur) Look at the 2013 QB Competition

A video was recently posted by Rivals which showed various drills being done by Max Wittek, Cody Kessler, and Max Browne as they compete for the starting Quarterback job at USC.  I decided to take this video and see if any further information could be extracted.

I want to start out with a disclaimer that I am not an expert when it comes to fundamentals or mechanics.  This post is meant as a discussion starter and I welcome feedback from those who may have input and/or more knowledge than myself.  I do, however, try to stay within reasonable bounds which I believe to be testable and true.

The first thing I did was rearrange the video so that it was divided up by drill type.  This way, you can see each quarterback doing a particular drill before moving onto the next drill.  This allows for easier comparison.

This rearranged video can be found here. (The original video can be found here.)

Now that we have the video rearranged for breakdown, let us get down to the numbers and analysis.  The areas that I analyze are footwork, play action fakes, throw timing, throw power, and throw accuracy.


The footwork drills are the first two drills that we see in the video.  The first drill shows each quarterback moving around or over bags while the second drill shows each quarterback moving in figure eight patterns around cones.

First, let us look at the footwork drill using bags.  I measured the time it took for each quarterback to execute the various movements in the bag drill.  There were two movement types: moving around the bags and going over the bags.  The time was measured from the moment the player planted their foot to kick off the motion until both their feet set after the motion.  These times were then averaged out over the number of times the player executed the motion.

2013_USC_QB_Comp_Footwork_Bags_TimeAs you can see here, each quarterback was fairly close to each other with the exception of Cody Kessler’s “around the bag” movement.  Kessler seemed to struggle comparatively in this one, being about 0.4 seconds slower than the others.  It is possible that Kessler got flustered after running into the first bag in his initial dropback.

Now let us look at the cone drill.  This drill starts at about 28 seconds into the video.  In this drill, there were four motion types: forward, backward, left, and right.  Again, I measured the time it took each quarterback to execute each motion.  Note that the video did not include the beginning of Max Wittek’s backward motion, so it is not included in the data.

2013_USC_QB_Comp_Footwork_Cones_TimeThese times are much more normalized among the three quarterbacks.  Kessler was actually the fastest in the lateral motion drills in this round.

I want to point out that Cody Kessler holds the ball in the improper orientation when doing footwork drills.  As noted by this article on Smart Football, a QB should be holding the ball in a “cocked” position: 45 degrees outward, down, and off from the body.  Holding the football at this angle “reduces joint movement, presets wrist pronation, increases the ball’s spin rate when thrown, and increases ball control with the fingers.”  When Kessler is performing footwork drills, he holds the ball nearly vertical, but during throwing drills he holds the ball properly.  I included screen captures of the bag drill, cone drill, and a representative throwing drill below for comparison.  (I flipped the image horizontally for the throwing drill so that it matched the orientation of the other photos.  The arrow is a representation of the ball angle.)

2013_USC_QB_Comp_Kessler_Ball_Pos_CompiledGiven that this issue only pronounced itself during footwork drills, and wasn’t there during throwing drills, I am assuming that Kessler isn’t completely comfortable with his footwork yet.  The specific movements aren’t ingrained as second nature, which is causing him to focus on his feet rather than the rest of his body.

Kessler is also the only quarterback that I noticed to peek down during the cones footwork drill.  To me, this shows a lack of spacial awareness that he must reorient himself to the cones after certain movements.  This may also be an extension of the “overthinking” mentioned above.

Play Action Fake

The next thing I want to look at is a comparison of the play action fakes between each quarterback. The play action drills start at around 1:05 into the video.

I clocked the amount of time that each quarterback stays within their play action.  I timed this starting when the quarterback’s arm is completely stretched for the handoff until the point when both hands return onto the ball.

2013_USC_QB_Comp_Play_Action_TimeMax Wittek and Cody Kessler both have very similar times for their play action fakes.  However, Max Browne is significantly shorter in his fake time.  Rewatch the play action drills and look at how quickly he pulls the ball back from his fake.  He pretty much brings it back immediately after extending.  In my opinion, this is a bad fake and Browne doesn’t “sell” the action.  This may stem from his lack of playing from under center in High School, causing his drop back handoffs and fakes to be unrefined.  Browne also does this really funny ball slap when he is doing play action rolling to his right (when he is handing the ball off from his non-throwing hand).  In my mind, this gives an additional sound cue for the defenders to know that this isn’t a running play.  It is possible the slap is supposed to simulate the ball hitting the pads of the runner, but the timing would probably seem off.

Time to Throw

There were a couple of drills which I thought the timing to make the throw was important.  Let us start with the 4th drill, where the quarterbacks starts with play action then pivot to throw the ball to a checkdown player at the sidelines.  This drill starts at around 2:28 in the video.

I clocked the time it took for each quarterback to perform that pivot-throw combination.  The faster the quarterback can reposition his body to make a throw to a different alignment, the less time the defenders will have to react to his movements.

2013_USC_QB_Comp_PivotToThrow_TimeAs you can see here, both Wittek and Kessler are pretty close in how quickly they can pivot and get the ball out of their hands.  Max Brown is notably slower at this motion.

The next drill we will look at is the final drill of the video.  It shows the quarterbacks facing backwards to start.  They then turn around and find their target to throw the ball.  This drill helps measure the reaction time and how quickly each quarterback can lock into a target and get the ball there.  This drill starts at around 3:44 in the video.

2013_USC_QB_Comp_BlindThrow_TimeAs can be seen here Wittek was the quickest followed by Kessler and then Browne.  It should be noted that one of Browne’s “blind throws” did not actually show him turning in the video, which gives an ambiguous start time.  However, I still included the total time that was shown since it was  the longest of his times at this drill and likely would have been longer had they shown his turn.

Throw Power

In order to judge throwing power, I clocked the airtime for each throw.  I separated the times from each drill, which should normalize the throwing distances.

2013_USC_QB_Comp_Air_TimeAs you can see here, Wittek consistently had the shortest airtime while Kessler had consistently the longest.  This implies that Wittek throws the ball with the most power behind it.  Please note that power does not necessarily equal a good throw.  There are some throws the require arm strength, like a deep out.  There are other throws the require touch on the ball, and a powerful laser can be quite detrimental to the receiver’s ability to catch the ball.  Since these drills weren’t specifically testing either of these abilities, this just shows how much power each quarterback puts into each throw in an average case.

Throw Accuracy

Finally, I took a look at the accuracy of each quarterback.  I judged accuracy by where the ball was caught by the manager.  I considered the the area between the numbers on the receivers chest extending up to their eye level and about the width of the body as the ideal target area for the ball.  It a “good” throw if the manager did not have to move his body or extend his arms outside of this area.  Here are the percentages each quarterback had for “good” throws based on each drill.

2013_USC_QB_Comp_Accuracy_DrillsAs can be seen here, Wittek had the best accuracy during the play action to the front drill, but the worst accuracy in the blind throw portion.  Kessler was middle of the pack on the Play Action forward drill, but tied for the lead in the remaining drills.  Finally, Browne didn’t do great on the play action forward drills, but also tied for the lead in the remaining drills.

Now let us look at the overall accuracy percentage numbers.

2013_USC_QB_Comp_Accuracy_TotalAs you can see here, Kessler had the best overall accuracy, followed by Browne and then Wittek.

For reference, here are the screen captures of each quarterback’s throw accuracy.
Max Wittek
Cody Kessler
Max Browne


We definitely have a quarterback competition on our hands.  Based on this video, Wittek has strong footwork and throw power.  Kessler seems to have a little trouble on his footwork and may have less throwing power, but has the strongest accuracy.  Browne has the slowest pivot and reaction times and may also struggle selling his play action, but he has strong footwork and good accuracy.

It is important to note that these are not hard numbers and should not be used as a be-all and end-all for this quarterback competition.  This is a very small sample size of the total work that these quarterbacks do even within a single practice.  However, without actually attending practice, this is what we have as fans.  As fans, it is enjoyable to discuss and predict what we believe to be true based on what we do know.

As for my personal opinion, I think Wittek still is the front runner based on his two games starting experience.  I am of the belief that you can’t replace game experience, even though he is 0-2 in that period.  I don’t think the wind affected Wittek as much as many people seem to think.  Wittek’s main problem is that he locks onto receivers, which is a typical mistake of a young quarterback.  I saw it at the ND game, which meant that GT saw it as well and used it to their full advantage in their prep.  Once he fixes that issue, he will improve vastly.  However, with Wittek out for a short while due to a sprained MCL, we will see if Kessler can close the gap.  I am not personally expecting Browne to get a jump on the more experienced Wittek or Kessler at this point, but we shall see.

What are your thoughts? Who are you “rooting” for to be USC’s 2013 starting quarterback?  What observations did you make from the video?