Let's give Southern Cal a Proper Send-off - Friday, Dec 2nd - Game Thread

Pretty decent stage-setting piece here:


This a great article that really gets into the nuts and bolts of the USC/Utah matchup. I would imagine those of you who are “scheme” nuts, would love this.

How USC, Utah offenses have evolved to make Pac-12 title rematch look different

By Mike Kuchar

1h ago

When USC and Utah met in October, we were eyewitnesses to an offensive explosion. The two teams combined for 1,118 total yards and 59 first downs, and the Utes handed the Trojans their first and only loss of the season by a 43-42 score on a two-point conversion with 48 seconds left.

These offenses have continued to produce points at high levels, as USC is third nationally in scoring (42.5 points per game) and Utah is 10th (39.4). But we’re going to explore how this game might look a little different Friday night in Las Vegas with the Pac-12 championship on the line. Sure, there will be plenty of points, but how those points will be generated may be different than the first meeting.

Before getting into how these offenses have evolved, let’s begin with what’s remained constant. Both programs have continued to be stellar on money downs, as two of the nine FBS teams converting more than 50 percent of their third downs. Both are in the top six in total first downs, and they have two of the best quarterbacks in the country in extending plays with Caleb Williams of USC and Cameron Rising of Utah.

But these two offenses attack defenses in different ways. The Trojans under the direction of head coach Lincoln Riley and offensive coordinator Josh Henson abide by the prototypical Air Raid mantra: create vertical and horizontal stretches to stress defenses. Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig leans on the ground game (220 rushing yards per game) and an intermediate pass game to wear down defenses from their core out.

And while their general offensive identities may not have changed, there were two events that forced them to alter their methods over the course of the season. For USC, it was the loss of running back Travis Dye to a knee injury against Colorado on Nov. 11. And for the Utes, misfortune struck in Week 4 when three-time All-Pac 12 tight end Brant Kuithe was lost for the year with a knee injury against Arizona State.

Those injuries triggered the staffs to do what great staffs do: adjust within the framework of their identity. And these adjustments manifested themselves into four factors that you’ll see on Friday night.

Factor 1: Kincaid’s emergence

The loss of Kuithe almost immediately altered Utah’s offensive operation, prompting head coach Kyle Whittingham to call it “a big blow to our offense.” Previously one of the premier 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) offenses in the country, the Utes downsized, going from using 12 personnel on 53.2 percent of snaps to 39.8 percent the rest of the season, per TruMedia. And suddenly the No. 2 tight end Dalton Kincaid became No. 1 and transformed from an honorable mention All-Pac 12 performer to a Mackey Award semifinalist in a matter of weeks.

Kincaid leads all FBS tight ends in receiving yards (850) and receiving yards per game (74.8) and ranks second in receiving touchdowns (seven). Kincaid had had his breakout game against the Trojans, registering 16 receptions for 234 yards and a touchdown, and how Ludwig has utilized the 6-foot-4, 240-pound tight end since then is certainly noticeable. It starts with alignment.

In-line (attached) tight end: 57 percent of snaps

Slot alignment: 36 percent of snaps

Wide alignment: 7 percent of snaps

Kincaid has run virtually every route in the Utes’ system. Ludwig does have his favorites, and how he positions Kincaid’s big frame and soft hands (one drop on 87 total targets) has been innovative.

It started with getting him in space in the boot game, a play-action built off the Utes’ most popular run concept the past few weeks: outside zone. Here, Rising can get on the perimeter and dish to Kincaid with a good amount of open grass in front of him. It was predominantly used in 12 personnel groupings earlier in the year to get defenses to condense the run box, surrendering space on the perimeter.

Recently, Ludwig has progressed to finding ways to match up Kincaid on smaller safeties and linebackers on option route concepts. It’s an easy pitch and catch to the boundary, where Kincaid’s frame will often carry defenders for first downs.

He’s been Rising’s top target on third down this season, converting 14 times for a first down, more than any other tight end, per TruMedia.

In the clip below against Oregon, Kincaid gets matched up on safety Bennett Williams. He is athletic enough to spin out of the tackle and advance for a key first down.

And since the USC game, Rising has begun targeting Kincaid on more vertical throws. Of Kincaid’s 15 vertical targets, eight have come since that game. Last week against Colorado, he amassed five catches for 102 yards in one half, with his final completion coming on a slot fade in the end zone, where he outran an outside linebacker and safety to make a Herculean catch.

Ludwig has also designed quick screens to get him the ball in space when he’s aligned wide. Last week, he took a middle screen 20 yards to set up another Utah score.

But perhaps Kincaid’s best attribute is his grit. Against Oregon, Kincaid fell while running a spacing concept, only to pop up, show Rising his numbers and convert for 17 yards and another first down.

Factor 2: Utah’s transition to wide zone runs

Leading up to the USC game, the Utes hung their hat on the “duo” run concept, which is a version of inside zone with multiple combinations at the point of attack. But after that, Ludwig and his staff have shifted to using more lateral run schemes like the outside zone play, which meshed well with their newfound 11 personnel pictures. The three-receiver sets common in 11 personnel allowed Utah to spread defenses out and open up lanes in the box for Thomas and Bernard.

It’s been a way to stretch and puncture defenses and attack the middle of the field, again part of the Utes’ philosophy. And the numbers show it’s been their most effective run scheme in the second half of the season, netting 5.5 yards per carry. They ran it only one time against the Trojans, with Thomas taking it for 12 yards. For whatever reason, they went away from it.

They will run it to the tight end side:

And away from the tight end side:

As the season went on, they used several build-ins to protect it.

Against Washington State, they utilized the scheme from two-back personnel, allowing backup tight end Logan Kendall to block the play-side linebacker.

The next week against Arizona, they ran the scheme from a pistol alignment, allowing Bernard to get his shoulders downhill and get to his aiming point more quickly.

Against Stanford, they built in both pre-snap and post-snap motion to present a different picture to the defense. Here, the split zone action gets linebackers to hesitate, opening up a B gap run-through for Thomas.

They even built a read element into the scheme last week against Colorado. It becomes another possibility for a designed run for the athletic Rising.

Factor 3: USC’s placement of Washington

Riley is a master at moving pieces around to exploit space and personnel, and most recently, receiver Tahj Washington has been that pawn. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound speedy slot receiver was targeted 24 times in seven games through the Utah game. Since then, he has been targeted 30 times in five games. And it’s how he’s been used that’s made the difference.

As of late, Riley and Henson have shifted him around to be the No. 3 receiver in 3×1 formations to attack the middle of the field.

And his production has increased as a consequence. He’s amassed 63 percent of his season receiving yards in the past five games, mainly from this alignment.

Against Arizona, he ran several “rail” routes, turning deep crosses into explosive plays.

And a week later against Cal, he ran the same route for a 38-yard completion, setting up another score.

Washington has also lined up in the backfield on 15 snaps since the Utah contest.

By doing so, defenses cannot account for him when matching up numbers in the passing game.

He’s become another way to stretch the field horizontally and access vacated space. Riley and Henson will use their boot concepts to get him the ball to the field in a hurry. Many times if blocked on the perimeter, it’s Washington outrunning an inside linebacker or high safety.

Against UCLA, Washington lined up at the detached tight end position, again to out-leverage any box defenders coming inside out on the bubble screen.

Factor 4: Jones’ ability as a receiver

The loss of Dye is big, but the Trojans have still produced at a high level against UCLA and Notre Dame in the past two games. USC’s rushing yards per game and yards per rush are virtually the same pre- and post-Dye’s injury, with Austin Jones averaging 19 carries a game over the past three weeks. Jones and quarterback Caleb Williams have carried the ground game for the Trojans, and Jones has become more of an influence in the passing game.

Pre-Colorado, he was not often a big factor as a receiver, registering eight catches. He’s already exceeded that total in the past three games, with nine catches for 112 yards. Jones has been targeted 21 times this season, 10 in the past three games. Dye was targeted a total of 26 times in 10 games. Jones has become a life preserver for Williams when help is needed as his penultimate outlet (before his legs) when things break down. And he’s taken some of those same routes that Dye used and become more effective in running them.

The first is misdirection screens off counter run action, one of Riley’s favorite run concepts. Both the backside guard and tackle pull, as they would in the counter run scheme, with Williams faking the run action. Jones gets lost behind them, then pops out for the screen element, making it hard for second-level defenders to recover once they take their eyes off him.

He’ll also be used in base screen concepts, which are easy completions for Williams, who gets him the ball in space with what has become a productive offensive line unit blocking for him. Again, this meshes with the philosophy of stretching the field horizontally.

Like Washington, Jones is used as an immediate flat presence from stagnant positions in the backfield. Again, it’s a numbers game on the perimeter.

With two blockers in front, it becomes a race with Jones against an inside linebacker or high safety. Before you know it, it’s a 14-yard gain.


It will be interesting to see how both squads build off what they’ve established in the second half of the season. There are certainly new challenges presented. Back in October, Utah had a difficult time matching the speed of receiver Jordan Addison, who had seven catches for 106 yards. The Utes’ defense improved in the second half of the season, but the difficult news is that USC may have gotten faster with Jones coming out of the backfield and with Washington being used from more interior alignments.

Coaches butter their bread by adjusting and quickly adapting when adversity strikes. And the staffs at USC and Utah have proven their mettle in doing so this season.


Here’s an ESPN expert’s breakdown. Personally, I don’t think TT will be a factor. How embarrassing to take money for this.


Ridiculous. That guy and his whole network should be embarrassed, but I’m sure they won’t be.


:face_with_raised_eyebrow: ESPN. Thought they were busy doing “favors” for the SEC. Well, the latter would explain the lack of research by the “expert.”

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Both ESPN and FOX phoned in their coverage of the PAC 12 this season. To call their work atrocious would be an understatement. Honestly we could’ve gotten better work out of the local High School Audiovisual Club and Debate Club teaming up to make the broadcast.

The only coverage we had all year that was worth a damn was P12N. It’s too bad the major networks will again phone in their coverage of the championship game while Lincoln Kennedy and Yogi Roth watch from their homes.


He also said Utah would have to limit the touches O.J. Simpson gets.


That’s the most work ever for one post on this chat board, therefore an automatic red star.


I thought that for an adult human to get faster, an extra helping of Wheaties was necessary, but no mention of that here.

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Aligned to use their quicks to get open on more advantageous matchup…much more likely.

Yeah. Just making fun of the writer’s choice of words. :grin:


I wonder if Clark Phillips is playing.


Holy Moly, that’s great. I got literal chills. So good.

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Somebody in the marketing department at Utah athletics is really earning their money.


Whit could be on Yellowstone after retiring


I totally agree. You use everything. I know some are worried about Johnson losing his RS if he plays, but I don’t think RS’s matter any more for QB’s. If he’s good enough to start next fall, he won’t be here five years. If he isn’t good enough to start next fall…well, he probably won’t be here either. Use Johnson.

Totally agree about Rising. We have to run the ball well. If we can do that, the game gets so easy for him. If we can punish USC for leaving two safeties deep with the RPO, then when that safety moves up, punish them by going over the top with PA…as complicated at football is, it’s still a really simple sport.

If you can run the ball, you can do whatever you want.

What a crazy ride this team has taken on us. What an accomplishment for them. We lost our two best offensive players in Kuithe and Thomas and yet we are back in Vegas. Can you imagine if we still had those two? We’d be favored for sure.

But, it is what it is. I think that Athletic article did a good job showing how much we had to evolve mid season losing those two.

Crazy. Maybe the best flex player we’ve ever had in Kuithe is out and maybe the best raw talented RB (outside of Jordan, RIP) we’ve ever had. Both supposed to play for us, both are gone.

And yet we are still 60 mins away from a PAC-12 title and Rose Bowl appearance. What a team.

What a ride.

I hope they didn’t tell the commentators. Keep those bozos guessing.