This is the one you’ve all been waiting for! Unfortunately, for Texas fans, there is very little confidence travelling with Texas to beautiful and congested Southern California. So, what can we expect? I had the pleasure of speaking with a couple FBS-level coaches and they both had very nice things to say about the Trojans. It was like we were telling each other what we liked about the same ‘hot’ girl we saw at the mall. To clarify some, the ‘hottie’ out there in Southern Cal is the Trojan offense. None of us seemed to focus on the defense. I’ll share what each had to say. The secondary coach’s response to what he thought about SC went like this, “They are dynamic! Run the ball, can throw it downfield, the running backs are dangerous, in the passing game (too). Don’t let Darnold get started and can’t let them run the ball! All starts there.” His prescription was simple, whether you approach SC based on formation, personnel (more on this), or down and distance, “… put pressure on the downs they are most comfortable running the ball. Disguise shells (pre and post-snap coverage).” The latter is the most important. “Disguise shells to make (SC) think the box is too light, then ‘spoke’ down to add run numbers.”
The other coach, an offensive line coach, has actually faced a Todd Orlando defense! He made a great point and connected a dot for me, that Orlando is very personnel-driven. He stated, “Orlando matched our personnel with substitution all game.” If you recall, you’ve seen that with all the sub-packages (a dislike of mine). Coach happened to reinforce the idea that “those coaches” (Texas coaches) are all very good, come from good places. He also mentioned that Orlando does a good job of presenting looks you haven’t seen yet, some surprises. This all made me wonder. Perhaps we’ve only seen a shell of the Texas defense at this point. It’s only wild speculation, but coaches often prioritize certain games and if there ever was one to prioritize, Texas going into the sold out Coliseum and sacking Troy is definitely one of them. Do you think Herman & Co. can do it? That is the big question.
There will be no Tale of The Tape today. Suffice to say, the USC offense ranks well-ahead of the current Texas offense. We don’t know by how much. Now, where a major difference may lie is on defense. Hear me out. USC has been terrible in run defense, something Texas can exploit. On the flip side, the Texas defense has seen early struggles as well. It’s how they play this Saturday that matters and if they somehow close the gap between their performance and talent, it could make all the difference in the world. So, let’s start there.
The Bad – Orlando’s defense has struggles with assignment and technique execution. This is what led to many instances of poor angles and tackling. When the structure was maintained, the defense played well.
The Good – This defense is talented, very athletic and fast. If the ‘Bad’ is mostly fixed by Saturday, it becomes a distant memory. Another good thing, Todd Orlando, he’s up there with the best in the business. Though he’s trading chalk with a formidable staff, I think he brings his best.
USC Offense – It’s the Helton spread, y’all. SC’s base play is Inside Zone (Read too). Stopping their zone game is paramount and they can run it against any front. You’ll see a few change-ups, Outside Zone, Power, and Center-Lead (what I call it), but Inside Zone is their bread and butter. Add to that, you get all the fixings of a spread offense, read game, RPO’s, and a nasty play-action pass game. The latter is why you have to stop Inside Zone. This brings me to some ideas.
Spill The Run – Set fronts to occupy interior gaps (A & B gaps) to deny vertical entry. This serves a couple purposes. One, it will force runs outside and the backs will be much easier to pursue laterally. Two, if (big if) effective, it may force the Heltons to call more perimeter runs and or rely more on Darnold’s arm (still formidable). The defensive line needs to attack gaps quickly (watch for screens!) and hold tight against double-teams.
– 3-4: Texas needs a more physical presence up front. You also wondered why you saw Malik to the field side alley (overhang spot), right? He’s the only defender on the depth chart that can match the athleticism of any athlete the other team has to offer. His incredible speed will also allow him to help in the pass game, blitz from the alley, and pursue runs outside, ‘spill and kill.’
– Tight End: SC is down their 2nd tight end. This plays into Orlando’s hands. Malik has the athleticism to help bracket in the alley and bring the heat against the run and pass. SC’s tight end is a great run blocker and effective in the pass game. It may be worthwhile to match 1 and 2 tight end sets with 3-4 personnel. Malik allows Orlando to do so.
Coverage – This is the tough part. The safeties and boundary corner will be needed to outnumber the run. There needs to be a fair amount of disguise as well. This is the difficult part. Orlando will have to pick and choose the match-ups he’s comfortable with outside. From there, a mix of man and zone brackets will go a long way to help the defense gain a man where needed.
– 3-4: Against ’11’ and ’12’ personnel, match 3 receivers with 4 defensive backs. From there, you have aggressive ‘quarters’ run support and coverage, ‘spoke’ to single-high (Cover 6 or Cover 1), and the occasional Cover 0. Orlando has options. On standard downs, expect split-field concepts and run-blitzes from the safeties and boundary corner. 8 and 9-man fronts will be needed in this game because Darnold is a capable runner.
– 3-3: Against some ’11’, ’20’, and ’10’ personnel, match 5 defensive backs against 4 to 5 skill position players, especially on passing downs. In this one, I don’t like the idea of Dime because SC can keep their tight end in on passing downs without losing much and the backs can route as well. Don’t forget the slow-screens, inside or outside. From there, you Cover 2-man under with a ‘spy’ tracking Darnold or do similar in Cover-1 (I like man-blitzes), keep track of Darnold. I can’t say that enough. Again, Orlando has options.
– Darnold: There’s a lot of hype surrounding Sam, for good reason. He’s got cheat codes. That being said, he will always try for more and that gets him into trouble. Texas needs a strong interior pass rush from Ford, Nelson, and Roach (stunting). The more you get Darnold sliding laterally instead of stepping up the better. It’s from there you get pressure in his face with late pressure in front and in his face. Do that and I guarantee you see him throw a few into coverage, hopefully to Holton Hill who can’t seem to miss the end zone.
The Bad – The offense has performed well in my opinion. The early returns in the run game were few, but the team was also down for nearly the whole game, hence the 50 pass attempts. Then, you saw less bad and the run game appeared to have fangs against San Jose State. The bad is really that it’s difficult to say exactly where this offense is. It’s scored points, that’s good and it’s looked bad and good running the ball. You can say the same about the pass game, protection included.
The Good – The fact that you don’t know exactly where the offense is may be a good thing. You don’t even know who’s starting at quarterback and you’ve seen 2 different starters 3 guys play the position. Add to that, you’ve seen 5 different players take snaps, as Herman and Beck have run some ‘spread wing’. You’ve also seen a tight end added and another one may be coming. There’s a lot of mystery there. I think that’s a good thing. Lastly, Texas looked improved running the football and the Trojans’ run defense has been bad up to this point.
USC Defense – SC’s 3-4 base defense isn’t as impressive as their offensive brother. They play multiple fronts, align close to the ball on standard downs, and pursue well. Given the teams they’ve played, it’s hard to say how good they are on the back end. Both Western Michigan and Stanford are running teams and with that said…
Run The Ball – SC’s run defense has looked soft. I like their #98 defensive tackle, he creates some issues and lines up to the field. That’s the only area I see a major problem, Tristan Nickelson. Our Norsedude needs to have a good game. Opposite of him, the left side of the line should absolutely kill this front. USC will also commit numbers to stop the Texas zone run game. When they do that, it’s important to utilize the read game, RPO game, ‘spread wing’, and Chris Warren. You should see some displacement occurring up front and with #25 steaming ahead, you like your chances.
– ’11’ Personnel: With the addition of Kendall Moore in the rotation, things are looking up for the Texas run game. The Texas offense’s chances improve with an efficient run game to sell play-action. Both teams will try to attack in similar fashion. However, it’s more incumbent on Texas to keep the chains moving to kill clock, limit the SC offense’s possessions. Herman’s ’11’ (or ’20) personnel run game is where that starts and ends.
– Attack Vertical: Efficiency is needed, but there’s no better way to keep a defense on it’s heels than to throw over their heads. This is where play-action of Texas’ own comes into the fold. From my view, the SC defense likes to play compact and close to the ball. They are vulnerable up the seams and sideline intermediate zones. Sideline and seam option routes would be good choices to work on. Force them to stay over the top or match. Texas will need to place speed in the slot. This presents opportunities for Foreman and Hemphill-Mapps. Don’t forget 3-Level, effective against all manner of coverage and also threatens the sideline or seam with a vertical route. Attack.
– Screen & Quick: If SC chooses to stack the box, there will usually be space in the flat to the field side. Attacking both vertica and short will help get routes open underneath, also pairing Stick or speed-out routes. What I would like to see are double-screens, something we haven’t seen yet. At Houston, Herman and Applewhite would package the tunnel screen with a flare, bubble, or slow screen to the opposite side. I get the feeling some of the offense has been holstered. We sit and wait.
Special Teams Note – Something that appeared in both SC’s previous games are big kickoff returns. In SC’s kick coverage’s case, middle return has gashed the Trojans for big plays. If given the chance, middle return might help break a kickoff return. Texas has had it’s troubles here too. Both teams need work there. For Texas fans, hope SC’s coverage remains broken and Texas’ fixed.
That is all, it’s getting late and I have an early morning. There’s always so much to communicate before a game. I hope the notes make sense and let me know if you see differently. As always, catch you in the comments.