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Taking a closer look at the USC offense

As we did earlier in the year, when trying to get some real serious breakdown of the X’s and O’s, we looked to Chris Brown of Smart Football. Just as I was firing up an email to Chris about Steve Sarkisian and the USC offense that he brought with him to Washington, I figured it’d be worth checking out Chris’ website and seeing if he’d already tackled the subject of the USC attack.

And of course he did.

Back in August, Chris took to the cyberpages of Dr. Saturday to talk about the gradual changes in the Trojan offense, and how the attack mutated from Norm Chow to the playcalling of former co-coordinators Lane Kiffin and Steve Sarkisian.

Brown highlighted the major evolutions in the offense the past few years. Here’s what he highlighted in the running game:

Before Kiffin and Sarkisian (a former record-setting quarterback under Chow at BYU) began tinkering with Chow’s passing game, Pete Carroll made one thing abundantly clear after the 6-6 2001 season: junk the running schemes. He wanted to go with the zone blocking schemes that he had seen in the NFL, and to do so he consulted with Alex Gibbs (the line coach who had designed the Broncos’ great zone schemes during the Super Bowl years under Mike Shanahan) and Jon Gruden, the boss of Carroll’s good friend (and Lane’s father), Monte Kiffin. Instead of draws, traps, and counters to serve as misdirection changeups when the defense overreacted to the passing game, the zone stuff -- which everyone uses today -- is designed to get more double-teams, get more of a vertical push, and to provide a nice mixture of power while giving the runner freedom to pick the the crease in the defense.

Even the passing game saw significant changes:

Carroll was not happy with what went on in 2001, and for 2002 he demanded that Chow and the staff focus more on quick, three-step drops, more misdirection passes and some deeper, vertical stuff. The trend was to get away from strictly focusing on the mid-range five-step drop passes Chow favored. (Interestingly, although it shares its roots with USC’s offense in Lavell Edward’s BYU passing attack, Mike Leach’s Texas Tech offense went in the other direction, emphasizing those five-step routes almost to the exclusion of everything else.)

Regarding the three-step game, one innovation was the “spacing” concept, but another was the concept of “packaged routes,” where the Trojans put different route combinations to each side of the field, and let the quarterback choose which one he wanted to go to. The most common one was a combination of slants: to one side, was a slant and a flat route, which is good against “single-high” coverages (like three-deep zone), and to the other was double-slants, which is good against two-high, or two-deep zone.

You can see for yourself the USC offense at its best, with Mark Sanchez directing his troops in the dismantling of Joe Paterno’s Penn State defense. This is far from the methodical approach that Norm Chow was known for, but a vertically attacking offense that Carroll implemented with the help of Sarkisian and Kiffin that took full advantage of the offensive weapons that USC had.

As always, the ultimate neutralizer is quarterback. And for the first time in Carroll’s celebrated tenure at USC, he’s without a viable option, instead training freshman phenom Matt Barkley and sophomore Aaron Corp on the job.

Still, learn the USC offense, learn the Huskies offense. And while the players may not have the same pedigree or the same amount of time in the system, they do have Jake Locker on their side, who gives this offense a dimension it has never had with his unparalleled athleticism.

For more from Chris Brown, check out his work at or on his twitter @smartfootball