In the modern game of college football, there are basically three types of offenses that are widely used.
There’s the classic pro-style offense that uses a strong running game to wear out defenses and set up play-action passes. There’s the spread offense that utilizes a strong-armed pro-style quarterback and dynamic receivers. And there’s the hybrid spread scheme that employs a dual-threat signal-caller who could either distribute the ball to speedy skill players or take it upon himself to elude defenders in the open field.
With their victory over Utah State, the Trojans have now demonstrated that they can stop all three.
USC showed the ability to stifle pass-heavy playbooks by overpowering Hawai’i and Washington State, who combined for 79 pass attempts against the Trojans.
In dominating Boston College and its running back Andre Williams, who rushed for just 39 yards against USC after entering as the nation’s third-leading rusher, the Trojans’ gargantuan front seven indicated they wouldn’t be beat by a pro-style run-heavy system.
And on Saturday, USC overcame a prestigious mobile quarterback for what seemed like the first time in years by bottling up Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton, who’s totaled some impressive statistics in two-plus years as a starter for the Aggies.
Keeton was 21-of-39 for 179 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday, giving him a raw quarterback rating of 19.5 after he had averaged a QBR of 92.3 in the Aggies’ first three games.
Perhaps more importantly, Keeton was held to -15 yards on 12 carries. The longest rush Keeton had all day against the Trojans was his last, a six-yard pickup on Utah State’s failed fourth-and-nine attempt that spelled the end for the Aggies.
USC head coach Lane Kiffin credited defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s strategy to contain Keeton, which entailed aligning defensive ends and linebackers wide before having them angle in and rush tight to keep Keeton in a makeshift bottleneck in the pocket.
“Clancy had a great plan going in of condensing the rush lanes against him,” Kiffin said. “Anytime you have a great player at QB like they do, it’s going to be hard to take him out of the game … So many times Utah State had an opportunity to score but our defense just kept going out there.”
After just four games, it’s clear that Pendergast and his aggressive 5-2 scheme are a much better fit at USC, and could be just what the Trojans need to halt the ascension of those pesky avians in Eugene and those silly shrubberies from Palo Alto.
Under Monte Kiffin, the Trojans struggled mightily against quick quarterbacks who could run the read option or at least catch the attention of USC’s defense when they left the pocket.
Last year, USC’s season was derailed by a 39-36 loss to Arizona, as quarterback Matt Scott had 100 yards and a rushing touchdown on the ground in addition to 369 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
UCLA’s Brett Hundley didn’t exactly rip USC’s defense with his legs last November, as he gained just 10 rushing yards, but he did have two rushing touchdowns that proved pivotal in the Bruins’ 38-28 victory at the Rose Bowl.
And of course, there’s Oregon’s vaunted mile-a-minute offense that has recently torn USC to shreds and revolutionized college football.
Last year, the Ducks broke just about every offensive record held by USC’s opponents through the Trojans’ illustrious 125 years as a varsity football program. In what would be his final game against USC as Oregon’s head coach, Chip Kelly oversaw perhaps the most impressive performance of any team under his tutelage as the Ducks romped for 62 points and 730 yards. Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota was nearly flawless, completing 20-of-23 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns and rushing for 96 yards on 15 carries.
And even though that dismantling was truly a one-of-a-kind display, it wasn’t exactly an aberration. USC hasn’t held Oregon under 35 points since 2008.
Some might say that learning how to stop Stanford’s power-running attack is more vital to USC’s success. After all, the Trojans haven’t beaten the Cardinal since 2008, and a matchup against Stanford looms large on the schedule this season while USC gets to avoid Oregon.
But there are far more teams in college football incorporating the read-option into their offense, and it’s imperative that USC learns to contain those dual-threat gunslingers. Arizona, Utah and UCLA all feature quarterbacks who feel just as comfortable tucking the ball and running as they do setting their feet in the pocket.
When USC upset the Ducks 38-35 in Eugene in 2011, Oregon running backs Kenjon Barner and LaMichael James still managed to combine for more than 200 yards on 35 rushing attempts. But the Trojans bottled up quarterback Darron Thomas, who gained just five yards on nine carries, and no Oregon running play went for more than 17 yards.
As the Trojans enter the bulk of their Pac-12 slate, the defense will be tested each week by a variety of schemes in a conference that’s made its case for the deepest league in the country by going 29-4 against nonconference opponents this season.
“I think now in our conference, the offenses are better than they used to be,” Kiffin said after the victory over the Aggies. “I think we’re going to be tested in different ways from some high-powered offenses and today we passed that test.”
The team is preparing to face its toughest opponent — yet again — in Arizona State this Saturday. But I’m confident that at least the defense will show up to play in Tempe. The offense, you ask? Well, we’ll see.
“Laying Down the Laws” runs Mondays. To comment on this story, email Will at [email protected] or visit cquartz.info.