No. 17 USC has a knack for big plays and it could be growing
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Steve Sarkisian returned to Southern California as a new convert to the importance of tempo, pledging to have the Trojans run 80 plays per game on offense.
No. 17 USC is only averaging 66 plays through its first four games this season, but the coach can’t complain because of what his team is doing when it has the ball: averaging a Pac-12-leading 8.1 yards per play.
“Would I love to run 80 plays? Of course, but I don’t want to sacrifice the explosiveness of our team, which we have right now,” Sarkisian said. “We’re getting yards in chunks, which going into this season was a huge goal that we wanted to get bigger plays and be a more explosive offense.”
Quarterback Cody Kessler said the goal is for 20 percent of offensive snaps to become explosive plays, defined as runs of 10 yards or more and passes of 15 yards or more. USC had 12 such plays in its last game at Arizona State, including its first two touchdowns in the 42-14 win.
Receivers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Steven Mitchell and three-way weapon Adoree Jackson accounted for six of the eight explosive pass plays, exploiting the Sun Devils’ aggressive blitz tendencies either by getting down the field for Kessler or ripping off big gains after the catch.
“It’s a special thing when you look up and it’s JuJu, Adoree, and Steven on the field at once. That’s a lot of speed on the field at one time,” offensive coordinator Clay Helton said.
Helton doesn’t expect future opponents to copy Arizona State’s approach and leave defenders one-on-one to deal with Smith-Schuster, Mitchell and Jackson as often. Helton noted that Washington, which faces USC on Thursday night, tends to be cautious with its safeties to try to prevent big plays.
The mere presence of Jackson, who had catch-and-run plays of 80 and 45 yards against Arizona State, should be enough to dictate coverages going forward. With senior cornerback Kevon Seymour looking healthier in practice after missing the last two games with a knee injury, there could be more opportunities for Jackson to work on offense without compromising the effectiveness of the USC secondary.
However, USC had the same number of explosive plays in its loss to Stanford without Jackson touching the ball on offense, and actually gained more yards per play against the Cardinal than at Arizona State. The difference came on third down, converting 10-of-16 attempts against Arizona State compared to a dismal 4-of-10 against Stanford.
If USC can keep the chains moving on third down, Sarkisian said the offense will be on the field enough to get closer to that goal of 80 plays per game.
The Huskies will test USC’s ability to more deliberately move the ball down the field. Washington is allowing a conference-low 4.3 yards per play and has surrendered an average of just under nine explosive plays per game despite losing three first-round draft picks to the NFL.
“They don’t blow assignments,” Helton said. “They make you go the long way. It’ll be a tough challenge for us.”