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Scouting report: USC

(Courtney Tran/Daily Bruin)

By Anay Dattawadkar

Nov. 24, 2015 2:15 a.m.

On Saturday, UCLA will face USC in a battle for the Pac-12 South title. The Bruins (8-3, 5-3 Pac-12) have defeated the Trojans (7-4, 5-3) for three straight years.

Here’s a scouting report for USC, a talented team that will be looking to avenge recent history.

Base Formation: Spread
Run/Pass Ratio: 53 percent rush / 47 percent pass
Blocking Style: Zone blocking
Strength: Wide receiver corps
Weakness: Pass protection
X-factor: Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster

UCLA will face a stern test this week against a strong USC offense led by interim coach Clay Helton. Helton’s spread/pro-style hybrid offense is littered with talent up and down. This is a unit defined by its ability to move the ball through the air, with senior quarterback Cody Kessler aptly finding targets among a deep wide receiver corps.

Though Kessler hasn’t quite put up numbers worthy of the Heisman hype that surrounded him coming into the season, the senior has played very well. He is an accurate passer, completing nearly 70 percent of his attempts so far; he also is renowned for his care with the ball, having thrown just six interceptions on the year, a key reason the Trojans are a top-10 team at minimizing turnovers in 2015.

The Trojan wide receiver group is dominated by one man – sophomore wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster. Smith-Schuster – who recently was named to the 10-man shortlist for the Biletnikoff Award – is a big, physical wide receiver who currently leads the Pac-12 with 1,217 receiving yards and is tied for second with 10 touchdowns. He has, however, been hobbled by an ankle injury which he aggravated against Oregon last week, and his health will play a key role in the structure of the Trojan offense.

Smith-Schuster plays alongside sophomore Adoree’ Jackson and redshirt sophomore Steve Mitchell. Jackson is a dynamic all-purpose speedster who also plugs in on defense – at cornerback – and on special teams – as kick and punt returner. He has scored touchdowns in all three facets of the game so far this year.

The Trojans are not renowned for their rushing prowess, and are ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in that category. Freshman Ronald Jones II leads the team in rushing yards so far this year, though junior Justin Davis has been featured more recently, racking up 141 yards last week against Oregon.

The Trojans are middling in pass protection, tied for sixth in the Pac-12 in sacks against. This is partly due to several key injuries on the offensive line and poor pass blocking by the running backs. Look for the UCLA defense to attack this weak spot throughout the game. The Bruins have upped their pass rush recently, tallying 11 of their 26 sacks over the past three games.

Base Formation: 3-4 Over
Blitz Tendency: Low
Strength: Rush defense
Weakness: Play-calling
X-factor: Hybrid linebacker Su’a Cravens

The USC defense that UCLA will face is significantly weakened from earlier this year. This is an injury-riddled unit, one that two weeks ago lost its best player, Cameron Smith, to a season-ending knee injury.

An area the Trojans have been solid defending is the run, their fourth-ranked Pac-12 rushing defense limiting its opponents to 137.4 yards a game. However, the loss of Smith and periodic injuries to other linebackers have forced the relatively inexperienced Olajuwon Tucker into the fray. The USC linebackers’ struggles against Oregon’s rushing game played a key role in last week’s blowout loss.

The Trojan pass defense has been suspect so far this year, ranked ninth in the Pac-12. Nationwide, the unit ranks 63rd in Football Outsiders’ passing S&P+, which is a measure of a defense’s overall effectiveness against opposing quarterbacks. The defense was recently picked apart by Oregon quarterback Vernon Adams, whose six touchdown passes broke a record for an opposing quarterback against USC.

In that game – especially in the first half – defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox’s scheme was mercilessly sliced open. Time and time again, Oregon wide receivers found themselves wide open down the seam or on the sideline. A mix of poor play-calling and worse execution doomed the Trojans, whose inability to tackle turned big gains into touchdowns and put the team into a hole they would not recover from.

The loss lent credence to the anger of USC fans, who have long complained about Wilcox’s play-calling and reluctance to blitz. Despite ranking third in the Pac-12 with 33 sacks, the Trojans blitz infrequently, relying on their front-four to generate much of the pressure.

The statistic that perhaps best sums up this defense is its 85th-ranked havoc rate, a measure of a team’s likelihood of causing a disruptive play – such as a pass breakup, interception or sack. Even worse, the team’s defensive backs generate disruptive plays only 3.9 percent of the time – which ranks 122nd in college football. This is a struggling defense, one which should offer a tantalizing target for UCLA’s third-ranked pass offense in the Pac-12.


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Anay Dattawadkar
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