The USC Trojans almost gave away a game late in the desert night Saturday, but they were able to hold on for a 28-26 victory over Arizona. And what they did before a near-late game meltdown is still encouraging. Changes on both the offensive and defensive sides are marks of improvement and better coaching, and while it wasn't perfect, there is reason for optimism among the Trojan faithful.
Here are my observations from the USC/Arizona matchup Saturday night:
- Going into the game, I was most interested in the defense and what adjustments we’d see from USC defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox. They did seem more aggressive, with a few more blitzes off the edge than we’ve seen in the past. There weren’t many, if any, all-out or zero blitzes with no safety help over the top — the risks Wilcox took were minimal, but it was still good to see an effort to manufacture some pressure on the quarterback.
- Speaking of pressure on the opposing line of scrimmage, a significant change I saw relative to weeks past was the way in which Leonard Williams was used. Wilcox played him at defensive end outside the tackles to get him in space, in exactly the way J.J. Watt is used in sub-packages for the Houston Texans.
Williams also appeared to be one-gapping more in this game, as opposed to the two-gap responsibilities he often took in prior weeks. A prime example of this was on Arizona’s two-point conversion attempt near the end of the game, where Williams shot the B-gap to stuff Arizona’s goal line run. Leonard Williams ended up playing a fantastic game, and came away with two sacks and a forced fumble.
Arizona worked the short passing game all night long, with many completions on slants and short comeback routes. Arizona’s play action repeatedly sucked up the USC linebackers, which opened up that mid-range passing game. As a defense, you can’t really help that since you have to respect the run, but adjustments for USC’s secondary still seemed to be an issue.
For instance, why didn’t we see more press coverage with cover-2 behind it to help out the cornerbacks deep? USC could have afforded to play more two-deep since their front seven was stopping the run so well, so why were the cornerbacks playing so soft?
Especially on Arizona’s late fourth quarter drives, USC’s cornerbacks should have gotten more help. At the time, the Trojans were missing Adoree' Jackson and Kevon Seymour due to injuries, and didn’t seem to change their strategy at all. We still saw a lot of off man-to-man coverage, with no immediate help.
USC would have been smart to mix it up with some zone coverage, so the linebackers could get drops to help out the corners underneath and take the slant play away. I know I compared USC’s defensive philosophy to the Seattle Seahawks’ last week, but the drops Seattle’s linebackers get in their cover-3 scheme help out their cornerbacks so much, and is a big reason why their defense is so good.
Even with these short completions given up all game, USC did a good job of not allowing big plays with one exception on a blown coverage. That’s encouraging.
- Unfortunately, communication still seems to be an issue on defense, with that obvious blown coverage on Jared Baker’s 41-yard touchdown as a prime example.
Additionally, one of the USC safeties (I didn’t get a clear look at the number and don’t want to incorrectly assign blame) looked like he flat-out blew the coverage and bailed out of his deep-half of the field, allowing a 27-yard gain in the first quarter. Communication and discipline—two things that aren’t always heated topics of discussion, but they do matter. A lot.
- Now for the offense! Of course, Buck Allen. He’s fantastic. His cuts are so violent, and his running style so smooth. He also has great vision. USC ran a power play to the right side of the offensive line out of the pistol formation many times throughout this game. They pulled the left guard to block on the playside, and had great success doing so. Credit to USC head coach Steve Sarkisian for recognizing what works and not being afraid to repeat play calls.
- I also liked that fact that USC gave JuJu Smith chances. They didn’t get any big plays out of them, but getting the ball in Smith’s hands and giving him opportunities one-on-one downfield was awesome.
- After watching Cody Kessler take more chances downfield yesterday, I realized that maybe USC hasn’t gone downfield because Kessler isn’t good enough yet at going through reads. Sarkisian’s horizontal offense and play calls so far this year (designed primary options in the flat, and short, easy throws) have played to Kessler’s strengths (quick release, accurate when he’s decisive). But downfield passing does not seem to be Kessler’s strong suit simply because of his apparent decision-making issues.
- Props to USC’s offensive line for providing really good pass protection and paving the way for Buck Allen’s 205 rushing yards.
- Special teams is important too, and USC far from perfect in that phase against Arizona. A long punt return allowed and the onside kick USC failed to recover highlight their special teams gaffes, but three missed Arizona field goals means that USC ultimately won the day in that phase.