USC and Notre Dame will meet in their annual rivalry game Saturday. The Trojans are coming off their bye week and looking to rebound from their loss to Washington. Notre Dame is looking to continue their drive to returning to the College Football Playoff. We share a few keys to a Trojans victory in South Bend.
Fix the run game
Through the first two weeks of the season, USC’s running game seemed formidable. Runningbacks played a key role in the Trojans’ win over Fresno State, especially through Stephen Carr’s route-running out of the backfield. USC was averaging a healthy 5.7 yards per carry going to Provo.
And then the wheels came off.
Part of the reason may be lingering injuries to Vavae Malepeai limiting his explosiveness. But the Trojans were simply not able to run against BYU or Washington. Against Utah, USC’s running game was just good enough, but the Trojans relied more on big plays than reliable short and intermediate gains. USC’s only win that relied mostly on short and intermediate gains was the first game of the year: a tight win against a vastly overmatched Fresno State team. When teams keyed in on stopping the big play, USC showed an inability to consistently score and create offense.
So USC must learn to win with a short and intermediate game. That starts with running the ball effectively. Offensive linemen must control their assignments and take more accurate angles. And Graham Harrell needs to better implement Markese Stepp into the rushing attack. Stepp has gained a first down 13 times this season after a carry. And he has only had 25 carries.
And yet the only first quarter that Stepp played in was at Washington in Seattle. This indicates that coaches have been using Stepp to ice blowouts, like against Stanford, or as a last resort when adjusting to opposing defenses. Stepp should be in the game plan from the start.
Find a way through the air
So I just waxed rhapsodic about how the Trojans need to run the ball effectively. Now I’ll speak out of both sides of my mouth and say that the Trojans need to do better through the air.
Through five games this season, there has seemingly been a lack of screen plays in USC’s offense. With so many dynamic athletes at receivers, its a curious decision to not get the aerial attack going that way, especially when opponents are keyed into covering deep.
Aside from screens, part of this has been about just getting guys open. Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell (and I) can talk all we want about the athletes and dynamism that USC boasts at receiver. But that does not change how limited USC’s air raid has been. Through his years at Oklahoma, Lincoln Riley has found a way to just get receivers open. Yes, the quality of receiver matters, but coaching and scheme does as well. USC can no longer simply rely on sheer talent to win games. Much of the equation is also play calling and play design.
One particularly offensive bit of USC’s playbook has been its predictability. The announcers for the USC Washington game noted that when Trojan runningbacks are offset to the quarterback, the play is overwhelmingly a pass. When runningbacks are offset and just a step behind the quarterback, its usually a run play. What is most alarming is that even the announcer had this sniffed out. If an announcer can predict USC plays like Tony Romo, imagine what opposing defensive coordinators can predict.
An ability to schematically confuse opposing defenses and force broken coverages would do wonders in jumpstarting the Trojan offense. As importantly, it would make reads and decisions simpler for the inexperienced quarterbacks on USC’s roster.
Keep the Fighting Irish to under 26
So what the Trojans do on offense has been well-established. So now what about the defense?
Well, from a personnel standpoint, the Trojan defense has everything you could ask for. There are stars at each position group.
Jay Tufele and Marlon Tuipulotu on the interior. Drake Jackson from the edge. Palaie Gaoteote as a linebacker. Olaijah Griffin as a corner. Talanoa Hufanga as a safety.
Each of these players is good enough to build a defense around, and the Trojans boast all of them. Its a common sentiment that a defense as talented as USC just needs to just let the players make plays. And that was what was done this season. Clancy Pendergast simplified the defensive scheme, but not to the point of oversimplicity. And the Trojans have put up some very good blitz packages that get multiple men to the quarterback. The multiple part is good because these Trojans are uncharacteristically bad at finishing sacks.
And that is representative of the USC defense’s main problem as a whole: tackling. USC defenders have consistently taken poor angles and have tackled with poor form. Instead of tackling at opponents waist or legs, Trojans have tended to go for the upper body and shoulderpads, leaving Trojans vulnerable to being run through and stiffarms.
In addition to the poor tackling, USC defenders need to work on stopping misdirections from opposing offenses. Defenders need to keep their gap, maintain their assignments, and not allow their aggression to be used against them. This USC defense cannot be faulted for a lack of passion: everyone plays with heart. But that heart needs to be channeled with discipline to stop the Irish offense.
So to beat the Irish, the Trojan defense must improve tackling and stay disciplined. Clay Helton has been much maligned for saying that games against good opponents boil down to five or six plays. This may not be true, but fixing broken plays would certainly be helpful. To beat Notre Dame, the Trojans must commit fewer stupid mistakes than the Irish. On the defensive side, that means no egregious tackle attempts and no miscommunication on defense.