Column

The Scoop and Score: The Air Raid offense has run out of miles

Graham Harrell’s offense has fallen apart — it’s time for the experiment to end.

USC quarterback Kedon Slovis progresses through reads

“The Scoop and Score” is a column by Eli Kleinmann about college football.

The Air Raid offense is like a fancy car being sold at a used car lot.

It is pretty on the outside, and the interior looks good. But when you open up the hood, it becomes clear why the car is not selling.

As it rolls down the street, the car looks impressive, but in reality the engine is deteriorating, and the car is not all it is hyped up to be.

Following a disastrous 5-7 2018 season at USC, former head coach Clay Helton was on the hunt for a new offensive coordinator after firing Tee Martin. Helton needed a quick fix that would excite the fan base, bring life into the Coliseum and save his job.

So he went out and bought a fancy used car — the Air Raid offense.

Traditionally, the Air Raid offense looks great on the field, but rarely produces winning results.

The Air Raid is a fast-paced, pass-heavy offense that looks to get the ball to receivers in space and stretch the field. While the Air Raid offense is known for its downfield component, it also deploys screens, outlet passes to the running backs and other checkdowns around the line of scrimmage.

The offense has shown flashes of success under Mike Leach, the most recognizable Air Raid coach. During his time at Texas Tech and Washington State, Leach took two programs that had limited success and turned them into top-25 programs.

For the most part, however, the Air Raid offense has not been associated with top programs, and outside of Leach’s time at Texas Tech and Washington State, it has not had a lot of success. The offense is often deployed to overcome a talent deficiency by outscheming opponents and therefore does not rack up wins.

So when Helton made the move to run the Air Raid at a blue blood program, it raised questions and concerns, but Helton believed that this flawed offensive system could prove everyone wrong.

Helton’s first hire was Kliff Kingsbury, Leach’s former quarterback who had just been fired from his head coaching job at Texas Tech. But, after Kingsbury was lured away by the Arizona Cardinals before ever taking the sideline, Helton settled for another one of Leach’s former quarterbacks at Texas Tech, North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell.

Like many Air Raid coaches, Harrell has found little success.

Sonny Dykes, a former Leach assistant, had just one winning season in four years as the head coach at Cal. Kingsbury did not produce a winning season during his six-year tenure at Texas Tech.

Yet, Harrell’s struggles are in a class of their own. Dykes and Kingsbury had successful offenses, but as good as those offenses were, their defenses were equally as bad.

At USC, Harrell has not even been able to master the offense that got him hired in the first place.

In 2019, Harrell excited USC fans with an offense that was explosive, created big plays and put up a lot of points. In reality, USC had its second lowest scoring season since 2013, behind only 2018.

In 2020, the perception soured on Harrell’s Air Raid offense when USC struggled to effectively move the ball. Gone were the big plays that had excited fans in 2019. Instead,  it was checkdowns, slants and out routes that picked up minimal yardage.

The same is true in 2021. Defenses have figured out that dropping eight defenders into coverage and forcing junior quarterback Kedon Slovis to methodically march the ball down the field will grind the high-flying offense to a halt.

It may only be year three for Harrell at USC, but the Air Raid experiment has failed. The offense that Helton claimed would revolutionize USC and bring the program back to prominence has instead sputtered and died.

USC learned the hard way that teams with top talent should not run offensive schemes that are known for overcoming talent disadvantages. Nor should they hire offensive coordinators with no real experience at the Power Five level.

With a new coach on the way, USC has a chance to create an offensive powerhouse with the right hire at offensive coordinator, but it will take investment from the athletic department and the new head coach.

Hopefully, this time they go shopping for a brand new luxury vehicle.

“The Scoop and Score” typically runs every other Monday.