Much of the focus following last Saturday's game turned to USC's passing game incompetence, and perhaps rightfully so. Being drowned out by the nation's schadenfreude, however, was just how stout the USC defense has been this season under first year defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Wazzu quarterback Connor Halliday and the Cougar offense went toe-to-toe with that defense under the lights in the Coliseum, managing just enough to tread water throughout the game and strike when it was most needed late.
Coming off a game where WSU rushed for 120 yards, some regression was expected. But 43 total forward yards from the running backs was entirely underwhelming. What made WSU so productive in the running game against Auburn was exploited by USC: The Trojans used a lot of pre-snap shifts, disguised alignment, and committed run support from the safeties to snuff out running plays seemingly before the ball was snapped.
USC played the majority of the game in nickel coverage with four down linemen, two linebackers, and five defensive backs. But the Trojans did show a move fairly often against 3 x 1 sets (three receivers to one side) to three down linemen, two linebackers and six coverage backs (occasionally it was a linebacker, other times a dime coverage back). From both of these alignments, USC was able to cover man-to-man (most often) underneath with two safeties over the top.
How did this stop the run? First, their linebackers/coverage backs were extremely active and proved very difficult for the inside receivers to block. Second, the defensive line was a challenge all game. And third, when WSU was in 20 personnel (two running backs) sets, USC would often designate a safety to man coverage on the RB. Typically this is a assigned to an outside backer or nickel corner.
Here we see a 20 personnel set ("Blue") facing six men in the box for the Trojans. Halliday is checking to the run in this hat-on-a-hat situation, six blockers versus six in the box, something he did pretty regularly when he faced a 5-man box (from 10 personnel) against Auburn. Watch the boundary corner communicate with the weak side safety.
The safety opposite the two receivers (weak side) would often crash to man cover the RB, doubling as run support. This particular play is blown up by a couple other SC defenders but does show a tactic used throughout the game.
The safeties were incredibly active in stopping the run.
Here USC gambles, putting everyone on defense except the safeties at the line. The safety aggressively plugs the hole to save an almost guaranteed 58-yard touchdown by Teondray Caldwell if he gets second level.
I'm sure Caldwell wants this play back, a little better move and he's gone.
Wide receiver blocking, or rather not blocking, also led to struggles in the ground game. Following the Auburn game there was a ton of examples of the receivers just dominating the secondary on run blocks. The strategy this game seemed, at times, different.
Gabe Marks and Brett Bartolone run a Z receiver screen at the bottom, and Dom Williams tries to run off the corner up top, who doesn't bite. It's hard to tell if the receivers thought this would be a screen, or this was a packaged play where Halliday had a true option of either handing it off or throwing the screen. More than a couple running plays had receivers trying to get corners to chase their routes instead of outright blocking them. USC's corners were rarely convinced to bail on run support.
So how to adjust back?
Play action. Defensive tactics like this scream for play action. Make a "run check" at the line, let them crash a safety and ignore receiver routes, burn them deep. The game plan moved to conservative fairly early, and with good reason the way the defense was playing, but WSU had the opportunity to be aggressive off play action if it wanted to. The majority of play action ran last Saturday wasn't winning any Academy Awards. In order for it to be effective the run game needs to be a viable threat, and the fake has to be more believable.
It didn't help that from the start of the game it seemed like USC knew what was coming with Halliday's checks at the line.
USC would often shift alignment or coverage after every line call by Halliday. This one almost works in the Cougs' favor as they shift to press man coverage and struggle to follow Rickey Galvin across the formation. The entire front for the Trojans was extremely flexible, with guys bouncing around and interchangeable at nearly every spot.
Against this rather extreme pre-snap formation shift by WSU, they rather effortlessly transition to sound alignment. Maintaining a five man front against the WSU five.
Kristoff Williams manages to run the corner out of position, but an unblocked outside linebacker (No. 55) stops a stretch run the short side of the field. Here is another play that may have had a screen pass option to the outside, or the receivers just ran a dummy play instead of block. If the screen was truly an option ... you have to love Bobby Ratliff's chances in the open field over a run to the short side.
USC was also active blitzing.
Here Bartolone has an option route at H, with Z and Y running double slants up top. USC crowds the line and double slants look real good pre-snap, with the corner off the ball and both inside backers at the line. Unfortunately the blitz comes from the other side.
This is just on Halliday. He needs to recognize where the pressure comes from and throw to the vacated space. Always look to throw into a blitz -- that's where the open space will be on the field. In this case Bartolone could have had a nice 5-yard reception and Caldwell was unguarded to the flat.
USC did a lot of things very well on defense, but WSU had its fair share of barely missed opportunities. A different read here or there and the Trojans could have found themselves well out of position.
The Cougs faced two of the more physical defenses they'll see this year and held their own. Both played the same coverage technique for the majority of the game, possibly foreshadowing how teams will try to defend them all season: Man coverage underneath with one or two free safeties up top.
WSU is starting to use a lot more motion to combat man coverage, like the motion play we showed with Galvin. Motion not only makes it difficult to cover the player moving, but opens space for others. Here it effectively opens a hole for Gabe Marks in the USC underneath zone.
The offense needs to take this opportunity over these next two games to put up big numbers. Southern Utah and Idaho probably don't have the athletes to try and guard WSU in man coverage; if they try, these guys need to make it known that's a bad idea immediately. The Cougs should see some straightforward zone coverage in the majority of the game for the first time all season. I can't wait to watch them shred it.
Others can talk about not overlooking an opponent, and I agree, but both of these games should get out of hand. Quickly. Mark Sandritter talked a little about yard per target increases he'd like to see with Michael Preston on The CougCenter Hour; Halliday needs to right the ship on that TD/INT ratio. If River Cracraft manages to haul in that pass as he's going to the ground in the endzone, we may be thinking about Halliday completely differently. But as it stands, the vaunted receiving corps has one touchdown to its credit in two games.
Connor Halliday managed the game well enough to win against USC -- now it's time to see this offense make plays.