“Outside the Pocket” is a column by Sam Arslanian about USC football.
For exactly one week, Trojan Nation was riding high. Fans hopped onto the Kedon Slovis bandwagon, ready to ride it all the way to a national championship. But they got way ahead of themselves. Slovis isn’t the second coming of Jesus Christ sent to save USC football, like many thought.
USC’s entire offensive scheme is based on putting the ball in the air, down after down. To combat this, BYU's defense dropped eight guys into coverage the entire game. USC has a lot of great receivers, but with most of them in double coverage, it made getting the ball to them a difficult task. Still, Slovis was able to thread the needle to move the ball down the field and score points.
USC’s first touchdown was a pass that split two defenders on a route to senior receiver Michael Pittman Jr. Frankly, that’s what Slovis faced for the entire game: having to force the ball between multiple defenders in order to produce for the passing offense. When that happens, interceptions happen.
So, is that it? All you need to do to beat USC is drop eight and they won’t go anywhere? Not really.
BYU has the NCAA’s 36th-best pass defense, allowing 187.7 yards per game. For comparison, USC’s upcoming opponent, No. 10 Utah, is ranked 60th in the same category, allowing 221.5 passing yards per game.
Where’s the good in this? Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell at least attempted to adapt to the defense. That’s something we really didn’t see from former offensive coordinator Tee Martin.
Last year, USC got burned by Utah’s cover two defense. Instead of changing up play calling, Martin kept trying to force the same plays over and over to no avail. Utah won last year’s match, 41-28.
When Harrell was faced with a similar problem, he adapted by putting the ball on the ground. Against BYU, 57% of USC’s offensive plays were rushes, compared to 45% against Stanford a week prior.
BYU was only rushing three guys, so it would make sense that USC would have a little extra running room at the line. The Trojans had some big runs, but for the most part, BYU stopped the Trojan offense when it mattered most.
On the other side of the field, USC’s defense did the opposite. USC’s pass rush has been less than desirable this season. Its inability to make tackles in the backfield allows agile quarterbacks, like BYU sophomore Zach Wilson, to scramble and create opportunities. USC continually missed sacks and tackles for loss against BYU.
On a 3rd-and-five attempt late in the game, USC pushed Wilson back 21 yards on a pass rush but allowed him to scramble, nearly securing the first down. Though the Trojans stopped Wilson short of the line to gain, had they sacked him for 20, or even 10, yards, USC would have had much better field position on the punt during next play.
There are always “what ifs” when a team is upset. What if USC’s late game deep ball wasn’t called back on a penalty? What if the defensive line made that 20-yard sack? And what if USC ran the ball instead of passing on the last down of the game?
The answers to these questions are purely hypothetical, but it has been proven game-after-game that the Trojans play down to the level of their competition. This is evident with the unnecessary penalties and failed attention to detail.
The Trojans’ season is not over; they likely won’t lay over and die like they did in 2018. At the same time, if they fail to improve upon these details, things could get ugly for USC.
“We’ll correct it and we’ll move on to the next,” Helton said about the team’s shortcomings after the loss.
That quote is eerily similar to what Helton said after every loss last year. It’s hopeful to say things will improve, but until they actually improve, those words are meaningless.
USC has a chance to beat Utah. It’s a home game, and the Utes pass defense doesn’t look nearly as strong as BYU’s did. Those two factors give USC an advantage. For next week, cut the dumb penalties, make the backfield tackles and limit the risky throws as much as possible.
Regardless of the outcome, the game will be a litmus test for what this USC team is really capable of.
“Outside the Pocket” runs every Monday.