USC hired two new coordinators in 2016 -- Tee Martin on offense; Clancy Pendergast on defense. As such, they will have a slightly different look and approach in offensive and defensive philosophy this year. The recent spring game provided us with our first clear look at the 2016 version of USC. So, we’re going to take a closer look at a select few plays from this year’s spring game, and break them down.
We’re going to start with a play that the Trojans ran twice during the scrimmage, which resulted in two deep touchdown passes from Max Browne.
The first play came on just the third play during the full contact scrimmage section of the spring game. Max Browne threw a deep – albeit under thrown – 64-yard touchdown pass to Darreus Rodgers.
On this play, the USC offense is lined up with 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 wide receivers). Darreus Rodgers (#1) is lined up as the ‘X’ receiver on the left and JuJu Smith-Schuster (#9) is lined up as the ‘Z’ receiver on the right. The defense is in their base ‘5-2’ formation – we covered this in detail here – with a cover three shell.
Cover 3 is a three-deep, four-under zone coverage. The deep section of the field is split into three sections. Each cornerback is responsible for the outside 1/3s, and the free safety is responsible for the middle 1/3. Underneath, the inside linebackers are responsible for two underneath zones, known as the middle/hook, and the Sam linebacker and strong safety are responsible for the two outside flats zones.
Here’s how the defense looks on paper:
And here’s the defense on the field:
Offensively, the ‘X’ receiver, Darreus Rogers, runs a seam route between the two deep zones, splitting the corner in the deep left third and the free safety in the middle third. The ‘Z’ receiver, Smith-Schuster, runs a dig pattern across the field. And, running back, Justin Davis (#22), fakes the hand off and releases into the flat as an emergency outlet. Everyone else stays in protection.
Here’s a pre-play look at the pass patterns:
The result of this play was a touchdown for the USC offense. First of all, Darreus Rogers beat cornerback Iman Marshall (#8) easily down the seem.
The fact that Marshall was beaten shouldn’t have been too much of a problem because free safety Leon McQuay (#22) should have provided help from his deep middle zone. However, McQuay gambled and immediately bit on JuJu Smith-Schuster running the dig over the middle, vacating his zone and allowing Rodgers to get completely behind the defense.
If McQuay hadn’t bitten on the dig route, he would’ve been in the perfect position to deal with the play. While this is obviously a significant mistake by McQuay it’s the exact situation that the offense are hoping for, and a good example of the effect that JuJu Smith-Schuster can have on a defense.
From a quarterback standpoint, Max Browne read this play perfectly. He realized the safety had jumped down onto JuJu Smith-Schuster, which was his first read and then took advantage of Rogers running deep down the field. The only problem with Browne’s execution on this play was that he significantly under threw Rogers, which almost allowed the defense to recover.
Interestingly, likely at the request of the defensive coaching staff, Trojans offensive coordinator, Tee Martin went back to the well later in the scrimmage and ran the exact same play. This time, he had JuJu Smith-Schuster line up as the ‘X’ receiver on the left hand side, and Isaac Whitney (#15) lined up as the ‘Z’ receiver on the right hand side. Smith-Schuster ran the seam route, and Whitney ran the drag route. Again, the Trojans defense played in their base ‘5-2’ defense with a cover 3 shell. Again, the Trojans defense was beaten deep.
Here is a view of the play with the patterns:
This time, the Trojans defense correctly deciphered the play. Cornerback Iman Marshall playing the deep left 1/3 didn’t bail downfield with the seam route and instead broke on Isaac Whitney running the dig across the field, taking this pattern away from quarterback, Max Browne.
This left JuJu Smith-Schuster one-on-one with free safety Leon McQuay, who correctly stayed in his zone, finding himself in a perfect position to make a play on the ball. Unfortunately, he misjudged the flight of the ball in the air, and Smith-Schuster slipped in behind him for the touchdown.
If McQuay had judged the flight of the ball properly the likely end result is an interception or at worst an incompletion.
So, although Max Browne’s throw on this play looked much prettier to the naked eye, than his previous under throw, it was in fact a risky decision. Yes, it’s one he can afford to make with JuJu Smith-Schuster, but the safer option in this situation would be to check the ball down to the running back and live to fight another down.