USC is back, baby!… back to cartoonish levels of villainy.
USC has been the hardest team to write about in advance. I already put together a rough draft before Cal was originally scheduled to play USC, but those same jokes (“haha, their coaching is bad and their team is bad”) aren’t so funny anymore. Even that article was significantly altered from my initial early-season vision, which was a pièce de résistance on the Kedon Slovis to Drake London connection.
At the time of this writing, they’ve just poached Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to be their next coach, and they are currently in the process of flipping all of those 5-star Oklahoma recruits over to USC (and probably spent a significant amount of time recruiting players to USC while still employed by Oklahoma, a definite “gray area” of recruiting, to be generous). Oklahoma just suffered their own Tosh “Benedict” Lupoi moment, losing their coach and all their recruits without all that much time to do anything about it. Lincoln Riley is simply assimilating himself to the local USC culture, by making himself the most detestable, untrustworthy, back-stabbing snake he could possibly be as quickly as possible. A perfect fit for his new role!
Of course, Pac-12 fans are supposed to be happy about this. USC being back to national relevance is good for the entire conference, I’m told. But USC fans were already absolutely insufferable for the past… well, my entire lifetime (you don’t even need to know how old I am for this statement, because it’s true for your lifetime as well). And now you’re telling me that they’re going to be good again?
USC Athletic Director Mike Bohn announcing the hire:
"It was never our goal to change the landscape of college football with one of the biggest moves in the history of the game -- but we did exactly that," Bohn proclaimed in his opening remarks Monday in formally introducing Riley in a ceremony atop the Coliseum. "... It sends a loud and powerful message to the college football world that this sleeping giant is wide awake, standing up and fighting on."
Translation: It was never our goal to be SO FREAKING AWESOME, but we did exactly that. It sends a loud and powerful message to the college football world that WE ARE BACK TO BEING OUR USUAL INTOLERABLE SELVES. You hate us because you ain’t us. YOU JUST GOT BOHNED, SUCKAS.
I’ve only watched a handful of Oklahoma games in the Riley-era, but it’s hard to imagine how this could possibly work out well for non-USC fans (unless Lincoln Riley only moved to Los Angeles to support his out-of-control drug habit or to facilitate his human trafficking business). I’m of the firm belief that in the Clay Helton era, had USC even a semi-competent coach, they’d probably be sitting where Oregon is now. That is, enough talent to put together 9-10 win seasons every year (even if they just squeak by a number of teams) and remain in the playoff discussion until a late-season meltdown each year. Instead, USC has had a coach that has actively underperformed and gone out of his way to lose winnable games. If USC could have cleaned up even the most basic things, they could have flipped a number of losses to the win column. By “basic things” I mean things like “don’t commit completely uncalled-for unsportsmanlike conduct penalties to kill your own drives or extend your opponent’s drives.” I don’t know why USC can’t resist taking cheap shots on a quarterback, hitting a player late out of bounds, or trying to start a fight in the middle of the game. But if they could do something as simple as… not that, they’d win more games.
Now they have a coach who presumably can stop his players from doing things like that… but also one that can develop talent. Lincoln Riley developed quarterbacks like Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Jalen Hurts. That’s the real trouble here. Sure, USC has always had 4-star, 5-star talent, but they’ve always done an excellent job of squandering that talent. Now they have a coach who can make those 5-star players even better? That’s the real cause for alarm.
From 2002 to 2008 (the Pete Carroll era), USC won at least a share of the Pac-10 Conference championship for 7 straight years. In the 13 years since then (starting in 2009), they’ve won the conference only once, and they currently have a losing record. Oh, how the mighty have fallen.
The current interim coach Donte Williams is known for being a great recruiter, and from the outside looking in, it looks like players probably respect him more, because they’ve cut down the completely boneheaded unsportsmanlike conduct/late hits/etc penalties a ton since Helton was fired, but they still have a ton of penalties anyway (127 / 130th in the FBS - 78.27 penalty yards per game). At least now the penalties are less egregious now, though.
As I briefly mentioned earlier, this article was originally going to be the Drake London show, as London was by far the best wide receiver in college football, and deserves to be a 1st round NFL Draft pick. The entire offense went through him, i.e. throw it up to London anywhere in his vicinity and he’d catch it. After London was injured in the Arizona game, Arizona outscored USC 27-13, ASU beat them 31-16, and UCLA smashed them 62-33. It wasn’t until last week that USC posted an even semi-respectable game without London, losing just 35-31 to BYU. Having a redzone threat very important for Air Raid offenses, which do well when they can stretch the field, but can’t do so in the redzone when there isn’t much field left to stretch.
USC has also suffered a number of injuries these past few weeks, which makes this offense even more difficult to preview, because I have no idea who will start (but have enough material at this point in the season that I could preview anyone). Jaxson Dart started at quarterback these past two weeks, but that was because Kedon Slovis was injured. Similarly, starting RB Keaontay Ingram missed the BYU game with a Wilcox-esque “upper body injury.”
Let’s take a more in-depth look at this team with its diehard fanbase:
To start this section, I have to admit that I have no idea who will start for USC on Saturday. Kedon Slovis started the season with NFL Draft buzz in a weak QB class this year, but he struggled early, and USC started to split snaps between Kedon Slovis and Jaxson Dart. By “split snaps” I mean they would actually alternate drives with different quarterbacks, and of course this 2-QB system rarely works (unless you’re Steve Spurrier in 1997). However, Kedon Slovis has been “day-to-day” with an injury for almost a month now (since the Nov. 6 game against ASU), so I half-expect he’ll announce he’s declaring for the NFL Draft soon and won’t risk further injury in a meaningless game, and thus I will write this section under the assumption that Jaxson Dart will be the starter.
Jaxson Dart led USC to a dominant 45-14 win over a solid Washington State after Kedon Slovis was injured on the opening drive (big asterisk here is that this was prior to Drake London’s season-ending injury, so London’s 170 receiving yards was a big factor in this blowout). Consequently, coach Donte Williams decided he would split snaps between the two quarterbacks, at least until Slovis’ ASU injury, at which point Jaxson Dart became the established starter in losses against UCLA and BYU. Will Slovis come back to split snaps with Dart again? No idea, there’s no injury news on this front.
Kedon Slovis is the more experienced, more polished pocket passer, but he’s pretty clearly hit his ceiling already. Jaxson Dart is the freshman dual-threat quarterback (although slightly hobbled running the ball since meniscus surgery earlier this season) with a lower floor and higher ceiling— while Slovis relies on the talent of his receivers to make plays and go up and catch jump balls, Dart relies on his own talent to fit throws into tiny windows. However, Slovis clearly understands the Air Raid offense better (better at reading coverages, better at throwing timing routes, etc), while Dart is liable to be fooled by confusing coverages and attempt unexpectedly difficult throws into double- or triple-coverage.
I think Dart gives USC the best chance to win, but he’s way more of a wildcard—he’s more likely to get the big play, a competent drive, kickstart the run game with better passes and being able to run the ball himself, but he’s also more likely to make a big mistake or bad decision to kill that momentum. As I said, lower floor, higher ceiling. If they play Dart now, he’ll make mistakes, but he’ll likely also learn from those mistakes and be better in the future. With Slovis, you know exactly what you’re getting. Something you are guaranteed to hear on the TV broadcast if Slovis is playing: Slovis’ high school football coach was Kurt Warner, and while Slovis does have a couple small mechanical issues from time to time, he looks a lot more polished as a passer overall.
Of course, Dart still has plenty to learn. At the top of the list is how to apply eye-black correctly:
Although NY Jets quarterback (and fellow Utahn) Zach Wilson may be Jaxson Dart’s Mormon mentor, Dart’s best pro-comparison is former USC QB Sam Darnold.
Like Darnold, Jaxson Dart does his best work during unscripted, off-schedule plays:
Of course, it seems to me that having your best plays be the improvised ones might be an indictment on your offensive play-calling, but who am I to judge, nothing fools a defense like seemingly fumbling the ball. Unscripted or not, you can’t teach running over a linebacker the way Dart did on that run.
When Slovis was playing, I often attributed the success of the play to the individual effort by the receiver. Not the case with Dart, as Dart is doing most of the heavy-lifting on a play, and Dart has been affected by drops and poor play by his receivers in recent games.
Take the following play, for instance. This is absolutely the wrong read as Dart zips a throw into triple-coverage, but the play is successful because of his arm strength and excellent accuracy on this throw into an incredibly tight window:
While Slovis almost certainly would have thrown to a receiver locked in one-on-one man coverage or sitting wide open in the middle of zone coverage, it seems Dart is still learning the offense. He has the freshman tendency of locking onto a receiver or making his decision pre-snap (often not seeing a wide open receiver), and here it costs him an interception as he throws into heavy traffic:
When Dart is clicking, he has excellent accuracy and ball placement skills. Here he is with a perfect over-the-shoulder throw to WR Gary Bryant Jr., throwing it in a place where only Bryant Jr. can get it:
Here, Dart again does an excellent job throwing it in a spot where only his receiver could get it, although this one (like many other successful USC plays) was called back for an unrelated penalty elsewhere:
In the following play, Dart showcases nice touch on his throw, fitting it just over the linebacker but in front of the deep safety:
Of course, having phenomenal arm talent makes for a nice highlight reel, it doesn’t tell the full story. Talented quarterbacks or not, USC is 3rd in the Pac-12 in interceptions. While the ability to make a ridiculous throw can bail you out via “good defense meets better offense,” even the best quarterbacks can’t be expected to make perfect throws all game long. You have to be able to find the easy stuff in order to consistently maintain drives, and to do that, you have to understand what the defense is throwing at you. It’s something I expect Dart will improve with experience, but he’s still not there yet:
Because of Dart’s arm strength, he loves to roll out of the pocket and throw on the run with pure upper-body throws. He does have some nice throws doing this, but in the following play he’s late with the throw— he needs to recognize this play sooner and throw his receiver open instead of waiting for his receiver to already be wide open, because at that point the window has already started to close:
As a side note, the play above is the sort of play where Drake London would have bailed his quarterback out on the less-than-perfect throw, but that safety blanket is gone now. Although Dart does occasionally make freshman mistakes like locking onto his first read, here he does a nice job of looking off the safety in order to give himself enough of a window on the TD pass:
QB Jaxson Dart is also tough in the pocket, and he’s not afraid to take shots in the pocket to make the throw:
The biggest improvement over Slovis that Dart presents is his pocket mobility and the ability to make plays on his feet. He doesn’t run the ball a whole lot, but I suspect it’s because of the meniscus surgery he had in the middle of the season (note the brace on his leg). Because of his ability to run the ball, he is more difficult to sack than Slovis:
Lastly, Dart is a viable threat to run the ball, despite USC struggles in run blocking:
At the time of this writing, there is no news about Slovis playing or not playing, but in the interest of space, I will perhaps add a Slovis blurb in the comments section if it turns out that he may indeed play.
I watched TCU’s 2020 season in the preseason to prepare for my TCU articles this year, and while I was watching their second game of the season, I remember wondering to myself, “do I really need to pay attention to these players that transferred away from TCU?” The answer turned out to be yes, because in that second game I was watching between TCU and Texas, the two running backs, Darwin Barlow (TCU) and Keaontay Ingram (Texas), both ended up transferring to USC for this season. Although Vavae Malepeai was the established starter, Keaontay Ingram has since become USC’s go-to running back. Probably the biggest reason for this is that Ingram is USC’s best pass-catching back, and that’s important in an Air Raid offense, as Ingram often functions as a check-down or an option to stretch the field horizontally.
Other than his pass-catching ability, there isn’t all that much that distinguishes him as an elite running back. Is he fast? Sure, but he doesn’t have breakaway speed. Is he strong? Sure, but he’s not leaving tire tracks on anyone. Is he shifty? I mean, a little bit, sure. As a runner, I find his best attribute is his patience to let his blocks develop before he makes his cuts, but run blocking has been a huge issue for USC this year, so it’s not a skill you see here very often.
In the following play, Ingram shows off some nice cutting ability, although (like many seemingly successful USC plays) it’s ultimately negated by a penalty:
The next play is probably the best example of Ingram: he makes a couple of quick cuts to elude defenders, and he breaks some weak tackles:
If the blocks are there, Ingram does have good vision:
This is an awfully suspicious number of highlights against Arizona, but here Ingram does a nice job to reverse field when he has nothing in front of him, another testament to his vision:
The next play is another USC special, where sometimes the best plays are the ones they didn’t draw up (although this is likely due to how terrible they have been at drawing up plays in the first place), but things just happen to bounce their way:
Behind Keaontay Ingram is the redshirt senior RB Vavae Malepeai, who is a short-yardage specialist. He’s big and powerful, and the most likely to run through a tackle:
Here Malepeai again bounces off some weak tackles by the UCLA defense:
Vavae Malepeai is also the best pass-blocking running back. If Malepeai is in the backfield on obvious passing downs, he is typically blocking for the quarterback, whereas Keaontay Ingram is almost certainly going to run a hot route out of the backfield as a safety valve for the quarterback.
Lastly, Darwin Barlow is the smallest, fastest, and shiftiest of the main USC running backs. That said, he hasn’t really set the world on fire this season, and he’s usually seeing mop-up duty for USC.
If Cal is worried about the USC run game, it probably means things are going very poorly. USC uses the run game to open up the pass and to pick up yards against light boxes. One of the reasons USC kept the BYU game unexpectedly close was because USC started to find more success running the ball than throwing, something BYU was definitely not anticipating. USC has been fairly awful running the ball this season, and that likely starts and ends with the play of the USC offensive line. The offensive line has not been very good this year, and their struggles with run-blocking in most games is the reason they so often decide to air the ball out instead. The offensive line finally looked good last week against BYU, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the battle at the line of scrimmage, as that will likely be the biggest indication as to how well USC’s offense will do.
USC receiver Drake London was the best wide receiver in the country this year, and by far the best receiver in the conference: despite playing just 7.5 games, London is still the Pac-12 leader in receiving yards (and that’s likely to stand for the regular season with just the USC-Cal and Oregon-Utah games remaining, and no receiver from any of those teams within 500 yards of London). Up until the Arizona game in which he was injured, he was pretty much the entire pass offense. Losing London meant that all of a sudden, USC needed to figure out who else on their team is able to catch a pass.
The top two targets after London are Memphis transfer Tahj Washington (Kedon Slovis’ preferred target) and Gary Bryant Jr. (Jaxson Dart’s preferred target). For the record, the #3 target after these two is RB Keaontay Ingram. While London was a big-bodied possession receiver, both Washington and Bryant Jr. are smaller, faster guys, and both receivers are pretty sharp route runners.
Here is a nice route and run after the catch by Tahj Washington to get open:
Washington isn’t a huge target, but he does have strong enough hands to make a catch with a defensive back tugging at the ball:
In the next play, Washington does a good job of high-pointing the football at the right time for the touchdown:
WR Gary Bryant Jr also effectively uses his speed to get open and body control skills to make the catch in coverage:
Gary Bryant Jr. does a good job of adjusting to the ball in the air for the catch (something much more commonly seen when Slovis is slinging it downfield):
If there is a knock against Bryant Jr., it’s that he doesn’t have the most reliable hands, and he’s had a number of drops in critical situations this season:
After those two receivers, USC spreads the the ball pretty well amongst the rest of the crew. Even though Donte Williams is the interim coach and presumably no vested interest in developing USC’s young talent, I was a bit surprised by how much playing time he gave to true freshmen, e.g. WR Michael Jackson III (hee hee), WR Joseph Manjack IV, TE Lake McRee, etc.
With Tahj Washington out wide and Gary Bryant Jr. in the slot doing their best to stretch the defense, USC has looked to their tight ends to fill London’s former role as a big-bodied possession receiver. There’s Malcolm Epps, who runs a surprising number of deep routes for a tight end:
Or Michael Trigg:
Come to think of it, both Epps and Trigg are pretty clearly pass-catching “tight ends”— it’s the other two tight ends, Erik Krommenhoek or Jude Wolfe, who are typically used to block.
It seems like backup QBs often have better chemistry with the backup WRs, so when the backup takes over, you’ll see an uptick in catches from the 2’s. One beneficiary of his chemistry with Jaxson Dart is WR Michael Jackson III, who has a reliable set of hands and ability to make contested catches:
Similarly, freshman tight end Lake McRee also saw a ton of targets in the BYU game last week, typically catching passes underneath or in traffic.
Although USC’s receiving corps is plenty talented, they don’t have anyone that poses a nightmare matchup for the Cal secondary without London. The success of USC’s receiving game is going to rest in the hands of the quarterback, whoever that is.
USC has been outscored in the 3.5 games they’ve played without Drake London, although they came close last week against BYU. The USC offensive line play has been subpar all season, and their run game has suffered as a result. With London in the lineup, they were fine throwing the ball all game as they had a receiver who would catch literally anything thrown remotely near him. Without London, they may have found a better quarterback (and the Dart + London pairing was dominant against Wazzu), but they haven’t seen enough consistency with the rest of the receivers to reliably move the ball through the air either, and hence all the losses in recent weeks. If the USC offensive line can get the run game going, USC’s offense will be an order of magnitude more difficult to defend, as more box defenders against the run mean better passing matchups for Jaxson Dart. If Kedon Slovis plays, he’ll likely dink and dunk his way down the field, while Jaxson Dart will be looking for the long bomb if he sees a good matchup. I’m really hoping Cal can put together one last win against USC, because it looks like wins against USC will be very hard to come by in the future.
What do you think, Cal fans? Will Cal’s defense be able to slow or stop the USC offense? Let me know in the comments.