USC offense looks for balance
LOS ANGELES --- Lane Kiffin has been on a search for balance this season but so far he’s had a tough time incorporating his two 1,000-yard running backs, Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd.
No. 13 USC is ranked 93rd in the country among FBS schools in rushing, averaging 121.7 yards a game. Of the 196 total plays run by the offense in the first three games, just 84 of those have been running plays, which is a surprise when you consider Lane Kiffin runs a pro-style offense.
When asked if he was surprised the running game wasn’t a bigger part of the offense, McNeal answered directly.
“No,” the USC running back said. “I expected it.
“When you have (a) big-time quarterback (and) big-time receivers, I mean, you have to expect that.”
The Trojans had a season-high 258 yards on the ground in the win against Syracuse. Redd went over 100 yards for the first time in a game as a Trojan. Although it appeared balance was restored, the view was somewhat jaded because 99 of those yards came on end arounds by Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, leaving the Trojans with a total of 159 rushing yards from their backs (including 17 yards lost on Matt Barkley sacks).
USC backed up their performance in New Jersey with 26 rushing yards last week in the loss at Stanford. They averaged 0.9 yards per rush behind a struggling offensive line. Aside from a 30-yard run by McNeal, which Kiffin called a “gift run” before the end of the first half, the running game never got going.
Stanford head coach David Shaw admitted he wanted to make USC a passing team despite all of Barkley’s weapons in the passing game.
His plan worked. With the Trojans forced to throw the ball, the Cardinal lined up a nose tackle over center Cyrus Hobbi to take advantage of him in his first career start.
“Of course they did,” said Kiffin of the Stanford defense.
Despite the pressure, Kiffin stuck with the pass and Barkley’s attempts rose to 41 and his sack count to four with plenty of hits in between.
Kiffin admitted something he’s second-guessed himself on following the loss to Stanford was really wanting to get the ball to Woods or Lee in the third quarter to allow them to make a play to hopefully put USC up 21-7.
“Obviously we’d feel pretty good up two scores on the road like that,” Kiffin said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to do that.”
On three of the Trojans’ third quarter possessions they went three and out. Of the 17 plays, they ran the ball three times. One of those runs was called back because of a McNeal personal foul. Not many plays for the aspect of the game that Kiffin says “controls our whole offense.”
“When we can’t run it we get out of whack. That’s not who we are,” Kiffin said. “In a pro-style system you have to be able to have some success running the ball or (defenses) just change what they do.”
McNeal agrees the running game has to be more of a focal point of the offense.
“It has to be,” he said. “That’s the only way we’re going to win. We can’t just depend on Barkley and Marqise and Woody (Robert Woods) all day to make plays. Other guys on the team have to step up.
“We can’t get too dependent on three people when it’s 11 people out there. We have to use everybody. That’s only going to make us better because than other teams can’t just focus on them three. They have to focus on everybody not just three people.”
The notion that the offense is heavily dependent on Woods and Lee becomes more glaring during a loss like the one against Stanford last week when it appears nothing is working and the two wide receivers are heavily targeted. It could be viewed as going to the well too much.
“It all depends on what the defense does and what they take away,” Kiffin said. “People have been doing that for a while, trying to take (Woods and Lee) away.
“A lot of times you call plays and the defense dictates where the ball goes by what they take away not just how we call the play.”
McNeal says he did “alright” with the chances given to him last Saturday. He’ll look to do more on Saturday when the Trojans host Cal. For the season he’s averaging just under eight carries per game. Redd is averaging 12.3 carries per game. USC is averaging 37.3 pass attempts per game. By the end of the season, Kiffin says he hopes to have a 50-50 run-pass balance.
“You got to have that balance or this offense doesn’t work and that’s how you get no points in the second half,” Kiffin said.