USC’s Late-Game Offensive Struggles

A look at how close games and tough situations have exposed the Trojans’ offense

Down seven points with just over eight minutes left in the game, quarterback Cody Kessler and the USC offense took the field. Opposite them were 65 yards of turf to the end zone and a Notre Dame defense looking to close out a rivalry victory at home. On 1st and 10, Kessler handed the ball to running back Tre Madden who gained four yards. The following play was the complete opposite of the first as Kessler went deep right on second down. The pass, meant for Juju Smith-Schuster, was under thrown and intercepted by cornerback KeiVarae Russell.

With 5:36 left and now down 10 points, Kessler was provided with another chance at placing his stamp on this game and bringing back USC from a deficit for a second time in this duel.

The fifth-year senior dropped back — one of the 47 times he did so in this game — scrambled right and eventually had to throw the ball away due to both pressure and a lack of open receivers. On the next play, he attempted to target Smith-Schuster in the middle of the field, a rare 25-yard throw that was tipped and intercepted. The hopes of emerging from South Bend victorious vanished; the two turnover drives becoming emblematic and expository of how it’s been a combination of Kessler himself, the line play in front of him and the play-calling around him that have made this offense struggle when it is expected to be thriving.

READ MORE: Sporadic USC Falls to Notre Dame in Clay Helton’s First Game

Quarterback Regression

The two big questions—one admittedly more important than the other—that shadowed Kessler coming into this season were whether he would perform at a high level against big-time opponents and whether he could throw the deep ball consistently.

So far, the numbers on both counts, are not exactly the resounding answer pundits were looking for when Kessler was projected to be in Heisman contention prior to this year’s campaign.

Kessler has not only struggled as the games have progressed, but he has also struggled once again at throwing the ball downfield.

In high-pressure situations, Kessler has once again faltered. The fifth-year senior has been unable to lead comeback drives when necessary, and his decision-making has mirrored that. As Reign of Troy’s Alicia de Artola pointed out, Kessler has not thrown a touchdown when USC has been down by seven points or more.

When ahead, Kessler is throwing for almost 10 yards per attempt. When down on the scoreboard, he has dipped to only six yards per attempt. The check-downs and screens seem to rise alongside the pressure, and it never appears to bode well for an offense that has failed to produce a big play when it definitely demands one.

Against Washington, Kessler averaged 5.4 yards per attempt, the lowest since his second game of the 2013 season.

In third downs, Kessler has consistently kept up his 9 yards per attempt from last season, but his completion percentage has dropped from 70 percent to a mediocre 58 percent. In fact, the offense as a whole hovered around the 50 percent conversion mark all of last season, while only converting 35 percent of third downs this season. That’s good for 98th in the country, worse than teams like 2–4 UTEP.

As seen on the right, all of Kessler’s metrics drop as the game progresses, and given that he’s been in a position to manufacture key drives late against Stanford, Washington and Notre Dame, it’s safe to say there’s not only been no tangible improvement in big moments or downfield throws, but more accurately, there has been regression.

READ MORE: USC Football’s Quest for Realistic Success

Play-Calling Mismanagement

Why Kessler and the offense has struggled in late-game situations is both a product of his shortcomings and USC’s own quizzical decision to abandon the run when it is working.

Consider this: Through six games, the team’s play distribution is 198 rush plays and 211 pass plays. Last year through the same six games, their numbers were 267 rush plays and 212 pass plays. Of course, what those numbers also expose is the fact that USC’s so-called fast-paced offense has not been so efficient this season.

In these six games, USC is averaging about 11 plays fewer per game than last year. The problem then becomes that with fewer plays, the Trojans have gone about depriving the run game, not the passing game, of more action. So far, this has clearly not worked, especially when the team is behind on the scoreboard.

When being up or tied, the running game has received 166 total carries as opposed to only 107 passing attempts. Yet when losing, the running game has received a mere 32 carries, while passing attempts are nearly double that at 59. Resorting to the passing game is a natural reaction for a team looking for points, but USC has yet to come back from a deficit and win a game this year.

With a stable of talented tailbacks like Tre Madden, Justin Davis and Ronald Jones II—all averaging above five yards a carry—it’s evident that the run game has found success even in its sparse use. Yet, as the numbers show, the play-calling has not reflected that.

Not even a wide receiver group depleted by injuries was enough of a deterrent for USC to diminish their air game; the offense relied on the passing game more so against Notre Dame than any other game this season (47 pass plays, 30 run plays.)

To wit: The freshman Jones is one of the 10 best running backs in the nation in average yards per rushing attempt, yet he’s not even among the top 100 running backs in total carries.

Straying from the run at times when the offense needs consistency has backfired on the Trojans. Moreover, it has saddled Kessler with a bigger burden to bear. This, in turn, leads to errant throws and mistakes that would be unnecessary if the offense relied more so on the run when it needed to.

READ MORE: Adoree’ Jackson, the Trojans’ Spark

Trouble in the Trenches

It isn’t just Kessler himself or the coaches who have been performing subpar in high-pressure situations. The players tasked with protecting the prized QB have also contributed to the struggles by struggling themselves.

This play is only one of many in the game against Notre Dame where the Trojans’ front line was both outplayed and outsmarted by the opposing defensive line. Without over-exerting their defense into blitzes, the Irish were able to put pressure on Kessler all night long.

In this case, Notre Dame’s rush forced Kessler to step up and throw an interception. One drive later, they reached him again and sacked him to put the finishing touches on their rivalry victory.

Last year’s group was thought to be young and raw, while this year, the team expected the front five to be one of their strengths. Both the eye test and the numbers certainly don’t back that up. This year’s line is allowing more sacks per game thus far, and has been thoroughly beaten by defensive fronts that have put even more pressure on Kessler who can only be mobile to an extent.

Kessler has done well to scramble and move in and out of the pocket, but the pressure has still reached and affected him, as he has thrown the same number of interceptions (5) that he threw all of last season.

This week, players and coaches have harped on the fact that gaining over 500 yards of offense is a great sign for every part of the offense. Yet it’s clear that when the going gets tough, the Trojans fall behind or have added pressure, neither Kessler, the line, nor the coaching staff have answered the call to perform successfully. With Utah’s talented defense coming into the Coliseum this Saturday, it will be interesting to see if the problematic trend continues.

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You can reach Sports Editor Paolo Uggetti here, or follow him on Twitter @PaoloUggetti

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