Diehard USC football fans, typically a quarrelsome bunch, can all agree on one crucial fact: Something needs to change in Los Angeles. And fast.
Thursday's 30-13 win over Hawaii was a much-needed one, snapping a three-game losing streak and ending a stretch of five losses in six games (all dating back to 2012). It got the Trojans off on the right foot in the win column, but beyond that, the night was an unabashed disaster.
The offense—like the program—is still being run by Lane Kiffin, and the play-calling against Hawaii was more than a little questionable. Silas Redd was out of the lineup, but USC still had Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor, America's best receiving duo, lined up out wide.
There is no excuse (nor justification) for struggling to put the ball in their hands. It should be the sole and primary focus of everything the Trojans offense does.
So what must Kiffin do to make things better?
There's a delusion about high-volume passing teams, a belief that they all like to get the ball downfield. But the best passing systems in college football, on many occasions, rely more on short throws and screens than vertical routes.
USC doesn't—nor should it—run a spread or air raid offense, but Kiffin should still take passing cues from coaches like Sonny Dykes and Chip Kelly. Not just because of their success, which is substantial, but because of what his personnel demands.
Hawaii is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a good defensive team. But on Thursday it threw a wrench in USC's offense by applying pressure. The Trojans' shaky offensive line lived up to its billing, allowing three sacks (including one safety) and countless other hurries.
The line will learn and grow and improve throughout the season, but even as it does, it will probably remain a weak spot on the offense. Again: That was Hawaii it just struggled against, not South Carolina. Those blockers cannot be counted on to create ample time against a defense like Stanford's.
Kiffin must adjust his game plan accordingly, stop relying on the same, tired pro-style offense he's championed in the past. A vertical system such as his depends on time in the pocket and downfield throws. He has neither the offensive line nor quarterback to run that system properly.
Instead of getting the ball to Lee and Agholor (and Darreus Rogers and Xavier Grimble) downfield, the primary objective should be—at least for now—to simply get them the ball. Even if it's a horizontal timing route, those guys need as many touches as possible.
USC had just 15 completions against the Rainbow Warriors, an unacceptable number on 29 passes. It struggled to put the ball in its best players' hands, though Lee still managed to finish with eight catches and 104 yards. If the offense wants to function, he and Agholor should combine for roughly 16-20 touches per game.
They only had 11 in Week 1.
These schematic changes come with a footnote: Kiffin also needs to name Cody Kessler his starting quarterback. He's better suited to a timing-based system (by virtue of his superior accuracy), and the passing chart against Hawaii proves it.
Chris Huston of College Football Talk looked at where Kessler and Max Wittek's throws went on Thursday. Look closely at the chart provided and notice the markedly different distribution. Almost all of Kessler's throws stayed beneath 10 yards, while almost all of Wittek's exceeded it.
From there Huston deduces that Wittek will be the starting QB, noting Kiffin's pro-style preference and willingness to let Wittek air it out. But that, as explained above, would be a mistake behind this shaky offensive line. Lower-percentage passes make it less likely for Lee and Agholor to touch the ball on every snap. And Lee and Agholor touching the ball should be each snap's primary goal.
Kessler's skill set and passing chart better reflect what USC should be doing, even if the results were hard to look at on Thursday. That could have been chalked up to a myriad of factors: first-start jitters, bad play-calling, Lee's dropped third-down pass in the first quarter.
Wittek fits what Kiffin wants to do, but Kessler fits what he needs to do. Even last season, behind a much better offensive line, Wittek struggled to put the ball in Lee's hands, feeding him just 11 catches in two starts. That was almost nine below his two-game average.
How could Wittek improve those numbers behind a worse offensive line? Why would Kiffin be so hostile to change?
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