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What makes Lincoln Riley’s USC Offense so lethal?

The Air Raid is alive and well in Southern California

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NCAA Football: Southern California at Stanford Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

This season USC is averaging over 50 points a game. They’ve topped 500 yards of offense in every contest. They’ve gone from dark horse Pac-12 championship contenders to legitimate college football playoff contenders, jumping up to #7 in the latest AP Poll. They’ve done all of this despite a defense that has underwhelmed despite generating a plethora of huge turnovers in their first three games. So what makes Lincoln Riley’s system so effective and explosive? Is USC’s offense truly one of the best in college football?

Lincoln Riley has a history of engineering prolific offenses with Oklahoma. Recently ESPN’s Paolo Uggetti wrote about USC’s offense calling it one of the best in college football. In Uggetti’s story star wide receiver Jordan Addison said “We expect to score every time we touch the ball.” While former Duck/current Trojan running back, Travis Dye said “I think with this team, with this offense, we have an unlimited ceiling.” Riley has so much confidence in his offense that they’ve gone for it 8 times on 4th down and only punted 5 times (mostly when the outcomes have already been determined).

The Numbers

  • 520 Yards Per Game (11th in Nation)
  • 7.96 Yards Per Play (4th in Nation)
  • 17 Offense TDs (T-12 in Nation)

The Main Playmakers

  • Caleb Williams - 874 passing yards, 145 rushing yards, 11 total TDS, 74.4% completion
  • Jordan Addison - 295 receiving yards & 5 TDs
  • Mario Williams - 194 receiving yards & 1 TD
  • Travis Dye - 304 rushing/receiving yards & 2 TDs
  • Austin Jones - 265 rushing/receiving yards & 3 TDs

Popping in the tape (aka YouTube) from USC’s first three games and a number of things stood out to me. First and foremost top receivers Jordan Addison (#3) and Mario Williams (#4) are way smaller than I expected, but whoa boy are they fast and extremely elusive. It reminds me a lot of watching the Miami Dolphins with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. A couple of diminutive wide receivers that do a lot of damage. Bubble screens, crossing routes and of course deep shots. Anything to get the ball in their hands and once they have it they are always a threat to make people miss and go for big gains.

The next thing that stood out was Caleb Williams and USC’s run pass option (RPO) based offense. Frequently Williams will take the snap stick the ball in his running backs chest and then just sort of read the defense figuring out what his next move is. It freezes the linebackers, confuses defensive ends and sets off all sorts of alarm bells for the defense if Williams has time to make the right read. Take a look at the play below against Fresno State.

That type of play is going to be tough for Oregon State’s defense to stop. The first option is an Austin Jones run to the short side of the field. Caleb Williams sees a lot of bodies at the line of scrimmage, fakes the hand off and rolls out to his right. He then has three receivers to his disposal, but decides I’ve got some space and all I’ve got to do is stick my foot in the ground and dust this 280-pound defensive lineman. And before the defense knows it Caleb Williams is trotting in for an 8-yard touchdown run.

Oregon State’s defense has been pretty good this season, especially their veteran secondary. But we’ve already seen them struggle a bit with quarterbacks that can keep it themselves (i.e. Taylen Green & Tommy Mellott).

The easiest way to slow down an explosive offense like USC’s is to get pressure in the backfield and on the quarterback. If there’s consistent pressure Caleb Williams and his running backs can’t slow play the handoffs while studying the defense. In the first few games Caleb Williams has been very patient and only takes off from the pocket if there’s no other options.

USC’s offensive line could best be described as good, but not great. They are experienced in the middle although they are slightly undersized. Justin Dedich (Right Guard) is a team captain; but they don’t have a clear cut left tackle as injuries have hampered them. Courtland Ford missed the Fresno State game and Bobby Haskins went down a few times and then left the game early in the 4th quarter. Oregon State will test the young tackles and look to get some pressure on the edges. The Beavers need to get Williams and company on their heels and uncomfortable, because they’ve looked awfully comfortable through three games.

I won’t focus on USC’s defense yet, but they’ve scored 3 touchdowns off of interceptions (all against Rice). Which really means this USC offense could have 20 touchdowns instead of 17 through three games. The over/under for Saturday’s contest is currently 70.5 points! It feels like if the Beavers can keep USC in the 30s they’ll give themselves a good chance to win. They’ve just got to find a way to get pressure on Caleb Williams and limit the big plays from Jordan Addison & Mario Williams. Easier said than done I’m afraid.

Read more about USC and this weeks matchup here.