Play Calling Breakdown: USC vs. Hawaii

Coach Lane Kiffin - Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Examining USC's "conservative" play calling in the season opener.

Imagine the complaining coming from USC fans had the team lost to Hawaii in the season opener. USC won by a misleading score of 30-13 and save for a seven-minute period in the second quarter that saw a score of 5-3, the Trojans never trailed. Anyone who follows Trojan football (like we all do here at Conquest Chronicles) knows few fan bases possess the ability to complain about a win quite like the USC faithful. This particular game saw those complaints take a familiar form with a familiar target.

Ask ten fans why the Trojan offense didn't look better Thursday night and nine of them will cite Coach Lane Kiffin's play calling. Given the extra possessions and advantageous field position as a result of a four interception, seven sack day from the defense, the offense found itself with plenty of opportunities for more than just 30 points.

With five star playmakers all across the field getting touches and the No.'s 11 and 12 quarterbacks from the class of 2011 running the show, we can conclude the lack of scoring doesn't come from a lack of talent.

Having dismissed that possibility from the onset, lets take a look at the run/pass breakdown for each down of play; by examining situations with more or less than five yards to go for a first down or touchdown, just a quick side note for clarification: situations in which it was five yards exactly were sorted into the "less than" category:

> 5 to go

< 5 to go

Total

1st Down

15 Run

17 Pass

15 Run

17 Pass

2nd Down

8 Run

6 Pass

7 Run

3 Pass

15 Run

9 Pass

3rd Down

1 Run

6 Pass

4 Run

3 Pass

5 Run

9 Pass

4th Down

0 Run

2 Pass

0 Run

2 Pass

Having broken down Coach Kiffin’s play calling based on down and distance lets now combine the downs to see what kind of choices he made based on distance to go, regardless of down:

Run

Pass

> 5 to go

24

29

< 5 to go

11

8

Total

35

37

Looking at these numbers, the repetitive rhetoric that blaming the Trojans offense merely on the head coach may be a tad bit off base. In situations with less than five yards to the goal line or first down marker, Coach Kiffin called run plays 57% of the time, in situations with more than five yards to go Coach Kiffin called for passes 54% of the time and as a whole passed the ball on over half the Trojans offensive snaps.

Compare this to last year when USC threw the ball 461 times and ran 391, which works out to throwing the ball 54% of the time. As I showed earlier, coach Kiffin called for passing plays 51% of the time against Hawaii. Those 37 passes resulted in 5.9 yards per attempt while the 35 runs yielded and average of 4.3 yards.

Compare these numbers to last year's 7.96 yards per pass attempt and 5.0 yards per rush and we see that the rush was 86% as effective in comparison to last year while the pass was only 74% as effective in this small sample size; the pass will always produce more yards per play but in this case the difference was comparatively miniscule.

Fans pulled their hair out over the lack of balance in the offense all last season and were also rather vocal about their displeasure at the lack of a running game. All of a sudden Coach Kiffin is passing the ball 51% of the time and the knock is that his play calling is too conservative. Instead of decrying the passivity of the play calling, something I have just shown is mere percentage points different than the most recent season which lead to complaints of the offense lacking balance and an injured quarterback, lets examine potential reasons for the way the offense was managed.

USC debuted a new left side of the offensive line Thursday night against Hawaii with Chad Wheeler and Max Tuerk stepping into new, enhanced roles up front. Furthermore, Marcus Martin was starting his first game at center and right guard John Martinez had been battling a leg injury all week leading up to the game. That is four new/inexperienced/hurt starters along the offensive line this season.

Anyone who has played football past a certain level will tell you that offensive linemen are most comfortable run blocking; it is easier to maul the defender in front of you and help your running back pick up five yards than it is to hold pass protection long enough for your equally inexperienced quarterback to find an open receiver.

If there is one position on the football field that requires time to mesh it is along the line. Playing on the line is a dance choreographed over months, if not years. Coach Kiffin, having been around football his entire adult life, is undoubtedly aware of this and wanted to keep the game plan simple for a group adjusting to playing with each other.

On top of those factors, I mentioned the Trojans breaking in two new quarterbacks. Starter Cody Kessler had all of two passes on game tape going into the Hawaii game and given his performance at the end of last year, Max Wittek is probably wishing he had even less than that; anyone who expected either of these young men to come out and look like Matt Barkley quieting Autzen stadium was in for a rude awakening.

While both looked shaky at times, numerous drops on the part of Marqise Lee and an offensive line that ranged from acceptable to porous undoubtedly helped fuel the early struggles.

It is easy to lay the offensive struggles at the feet of Coach Kiffin and say his play calling was too conservative. An examination of the play breakdown from the season opener and last season as a whole shows a nearly identical set of numbers while the complaints have switched 180 degrees.

While the play calling may not have been perfect (ok, wasn't perfect) after looking at the stats, it is wrong to portray it as a throwback to before the forward pass was invented. It may be too much to ever ask Trojan fans not to find things to complain about after a win, but it seems reasonable to ask we consider the circumstances and stats before doing so.

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