On escaping heartbreak… and why SC will batter Boston College

photo courtesy ABC7/Los Angeles

You felt it too, right? The debilitating realization that Stanford was going to march down the field, as it had against USC’s porous pass defense all day, and score a game-clinching touchdown.

I’ve seen those drives happen before, namely when Andrew Luck summoned his inner clutch monster (or was that the spirit of his ghastly neck beard?) in 2010 and drove the Cardinal to beat USC with a field goal as time expired, 37–35.

And let’s be frank: Stanford was the better team on the field last Saturday.

The prevailing media summary of the 2014 Stanford-USC game is that the Trojans ran the ball well against a stiff Stanford front seven (i.e. the defensive line and linebackers), racking up 156 yards on 37 attempts for a respectable 4.2 yards per carry.

But take away USC running back Javorius “Buck” Allen’s 50-yard burner late in the 3rd quarter, and you’ve got 2.9 yards per carry — not nearly respectable. My game notes are a mess of me angrily scribbling “ANOTHER OBVIOUS RUN ON FIRST DOWN WTF,” because USC head coach Steve Sarkisian seemed to call up some really untimely run plays.

On USC’s second drive, Sark ran the ball up the gut for 2 yards, then called up what I wanted to see: Some throws to the sidelines. First it was a quick ball to WR Nelson Agholor, which went for zero yards. On third down, however, Agholor was wide open for a huge streaking gain down the sideline — but quarterback Cody Kessler overthrew him.

That drive appeared to convince Sark that he needed to push the ball on the ground as a matter of principle.

Agholor was actually rather effective against Stanford, catching 9 balls for 91 yards and getting more targets from Kessler than every other receiver combined (runner-up George Farmer caught 4 passes for 36 yards). It’s a mystery why the Trojans didn’t air the ball out some more, because dinking and dunking our way down the field just wasn’t good enough to add points to the scoreboard.

photo courtesy Daily Trojan (whoop whoop)

“Probably stubbornly at times, we ran the ball more than people anticipated. We just had to hang with it,” Sarkisian told ESPN. (Blehhhhhh)

On the defensive side… well, the Trojans sucked more than the final score suggests. USC was acceptable against the run, only allowing 128 yards on 38 carries (3.4 ypc). But the Trojans were shredded by Stanford QB Kevin Hogan, who gained 285 yards on 22-of-30 (73.3% completion rate) with a healthy 9.5 yards per throw.

Nothing seemed to work against Hogan, and I was screaming at the TV because while the pass rush almost got to Hogan many times, he always found a way to stay upright and either a) make the throw or b) do his best Luck impression and high-step his way to six yards on the ground.

If USC played a Cover 2 look with two high safeties? Hogan hit the seam route right between the safeties, just like you’re taught to.

Showed a single-safety look? Hogan hit the out route, just like you’re taught to.

Blitzed? Hogan shimmied his way out and hit his open checkdown. It. Was. FUCKING INFURIATING.

Even the final play of the game was more a meltdown on the part of Stanford than some wacky defensive wizardry from USC.

Defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox dialed up an aggressive, but simple blitz while keeping one safety high (really high, practically in the end zone) and his cornerbacks in man. By that point, USC had tried several times to bring a 5-man blitz to no avail. This time, however, Stanford’s blocking got too fancy for its own good.

The play was a run-fake pass out of a shotgun formation. Like USC, Stanford loves “power” runs in which an inside offensive lineman “pulls,” or runs from the inside to the outside to get a big block on an unsuspecting defender.

So the Cardinal apparently tried to make the run-fake on the pass more convincing by pulling left guard #51 Joshua Garnett, with the hopes of making USC’s defense hesitate against the pass. (It’s possible Garnett was confused on the playcall… but that seems unlikely considering he’s a junior.)

What actually happened was a nightmare for the weakside (the side without the tight end) blockers. On one side of the line, the right tackle and guard double-teamed USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams, and rightfully so — he’s USC’s best defensive player by a long shot. But Stanford’s Garnett pulled and just stood there looking around, blocking nobody.

The Stanford center, meanwhile, absolutely whiffed while trying to block #99 Antwaun Woods, and USC linebacker Michael Hutchings ran right past him into the open gap right in front of Hogan. Stanford’s left tackle took a step inside to block Woods, but got beat badly.

So now you had Hutchings running straight up the middle at Hogan, USC linebacker J.R. Tavai going full-speed at Hogan from the blind side with nobody in his way, and Woods swimming past the left tackle and following in Tavai’s shadow.

The scary part was that Stanford’s outside receivers were in the process of getting open. In fact, you see Hogan rear back to launch one to one to his favorite target, Ty Montgomery, who actually does have a step on USC’s Adoree Jackson.

On the other side, Cardinal receiver Devon Cajuste also has inside leverage on USC cornerback Kevon Seymour on an inside-breaking “post” route.

The short version: Thank God Tavai lay the hammer down on Hogan on that play, because it coulda-woulda-shoulda been a heartbreaker, or at least would’ve gone into overtime (and we all know how that ended in 2012).

Boston College, to put it kindly, played like utter lightweights against a not particularly talented Pitt team, losing 30–20. The Golden Eagles gave up an insane 303 yards rushing, and that dominant running performance from Pitt also set up two touchdown passes from quarterback Tyler Boyd.

On the other side of the ball, BC was equally awful, with quarterback Tyler Murphy throwing two interceptions amid a 10-of-28, 134 yard game (averaging a meek 4.8 yards per pass). BC also rushed 34 times for 142 yards (4.2 ypc), with a solid portion of that coming in the fourth quarter while trailing 30–14. Most of those run yards — 92, in fact — came from Murphy.

Last year, USC’s defense kept Heisman Trophy finalist Andre Williams, now a New York Giant, to a paltry 2.2 ypc (38 yards total). QB Chase Rettig had an atrocious game too, failing to break 100 yards through the air.

Those facts make this analysis easy for me. USC should stuff the box to blow up any runs, particularly from Murphy. It’ll be important for USC’s front seven to not overcommit and allow Murphy use his fleet feet to scamper out into the open field. Instead, they have to cover gaps and over time dare Murphy to throw instead.

I suspect some well-timed blitzes, especially on third down (BC converted only 4 of 14 chances), will rattle Murphy to the point of inefficacy on both the ground and through the air. USC will have its way in the run game with Allen and Co. and in the air with superior athletes on the edges of the field.

It’ll also help if Sark calls up brilliant plays like the one that set up our first and only touchdown against Stanford.

In it, USC receiver Juju Smith goes in pre-snap motion from the right side of the field to the left, and the fact that the Stanford cornerback follows him tells USC’s Kessler that the Cardinal are in man defense.

The linebacker matched up against USC running back Justin Davis (to Kessler’s right) is actually on the left side of the field, because run plays from the shotgun usually flow across the QB (in this case from right to left).

Unfortunately, it’s not a run play — and Stanford’s #4 runs into his fellow linebacker while trying to chase after Davis.

At that point, it’s already too late. Davis is much too quick for #4 to catch up, and the running back has plenty of room to run after the catch.

This is all to say I am feeling fully #ArrogantNation about the Boston College game.


P.S: Fuck that noise about Pat Haden — I’m happy to see him get fired up against the officials, $25,000 Pac-12 fine be damned. He’s a great administrator and I honestly can’t get enough of his tweets to our players:

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