SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Athletic recently spent four days with the San Jose State football program as it prepared for its season opener against No. 6 USC. We learned a lot about the Trojans in the process. There was so much information that we couldn’t fit it all into our initial story, which was published Monday.
What’s the plan for USC and Caleb Williams? An all-access look inside San Jose State’s game week
So now we’ll get to the best of the rest and share what else we learned about USC during our time with the Spartans.
1. It was really interesting talking to San Jose State corners coach Chip Viney. The UCLA alumnus has a very intimate knowledge of Lincoln Riley and USC’s staff because of the six seasons he spent with Riley at Oklahoma.
So I asked him what stood out about Riley as a play-caller now that he was about to see it from the opposite sideline: “His creativity,” Viney said. “His ability to tell a story from week to week, knowing what you’re going to study and watch and then having something to take it to the next level in the week that you see him.”
On Monday morning, I sat in on a meeting with Viney and defensive coordinator Derrick Odum and they broke USC’s passing game down into four main concepts: Deep crossing routes, which they called “cross country,” switch routes down the field, quick throws and screens — though those came in a variety of forms (bubble, under, now, delayed and swing).
“That’s kind of where they’re at,” Odum told the secondary. He and Viney also emphasized USC’s heavy use of in-breaking routes. The Trojans had success with the in-breaking routes throughout the game. Dorian Singer caught a 13-yard TD on the opening drive and had a 17-yard catch on in-breaking routes. Zachariah Branch also had an 18-yard reception on an in-breaker.
2. There was a lot of talk from the Spartans’ defensive staff about leveraging the ball and not letting the skill guys get outside of them. But Riley made a concerted effort to out-leverage their defense in the flats.
USC ran a play where it faked the run, got the defense to flow with the run fake and Caleb Williams sprinted to the opposite side with a receiver or tight end coming underneath for an easy throw that got the Trojans in space.
USC ran some variation of that play seven times against San Jose State: Four times to Branch, who scored a 25-yard TD on it, twice to tight end Lake McRee and once to receiver Mario Williams.
Zachariah Branch. Playmaker. 🔥✌️
— USC Football ✌️ (@uscfb) August 27, 2023
3. Throughout the week, linebackers coach Scott White, who knew this was much easier said than done, emphasized to his players and the defensive staff the need to try to make Williams go to his left side and throw to that side of the field.
White shared stats with The Athletic that broke down Williams’ passes by passing quadrants. On throws to the deep right side of the field, Williams is tremendous. To the deep left side of the field, though, he wasn’t as accurate. And the numbers backed that up.
4. That led to a funny moment in a defensive staff meeting where White was telling the staff about it and then Williams’ throw from the Cotton Bowl popped up on the film. All the staff could really do was laugh about it.
Brenden Rice playing like his old man today. Had a 74-yard grab this drive and then a 19-yard touchdown here.
— Trevor Booth (@TrevorMBooth) January 2, 2023
“Still a hell of a throw,” one of the coaches remarked.
5. There was a heavy emphasis on first- and second-down defense throughout the week. When the defensive staff watched cut-ups of USC’s third-down plays, Odum remarked that there were considerably fewer than you’d typically see from an opponent.
“They’re not getting into third down a lot. Why? How?” White asked his linebackers during a Tuesday morning meeting. “Because they call their best right here in this situation so it doesn’t even get to third down. They’re calling their favorite plays (on second down).”
The stats back that up. USC averaged 7.7 yards per play on second down in 2022, per TruMedia, which was second nationally. The Trojans ranked 92nd in the FBS in third-down attempts last year despite the fact they played a game or two more than most of the schools ranked below them.
San Jose State actually did a good job of forcing USC into third-down situations in the first half but the Trojans converted on six of their eight third-down attempts — they averaged 12 third-down attempts per game in 2022 so eight is a lot for a half — and went three-for-three on their opening drive, which resulted in a touchdown.
6. White also coaches the special teams for San Jose State. The staff thought USC would be vulnerable to a dribble-style onside kick attempt. There was plenty of debate about it during the game, but the Spartans recovered an onside kick late in the fourth quarter on Saturday night. USC had some shaky moments with the hands team last year, so that’s still a portion of the game that needs to be cleaned up.
San Jose State’s staff also had high hopes for a rugby-style fake punt, which was inspired by what they saw from a look USC’s punt return unit showed against Washington State last year, but the opportunity for it never materialized during the game.
7. The defensive staff anticipated Branch could be utilized like Raleek Brown was last year, sort of as a gadget player. Branch did line up in a variety of spots on the field but he seemed like much more of a focal point for the offense than Brown really did at any point of last season save for the Cotton Bowl.
8. After studying USC’s offense for a good portion of the week, Viney wanted to share some thoughts on what he expected the Trojans’ offense to look like this season: “I’m on record, I’m calling this right now. I’m guessing 2015 Lincoln Riley-style offense, which was very explosive. A lot of 20 (two backs, three receivers) and 10 (one back, four receivers) personnel mixed in with a sprinkle, a taste here and there of 11 personnel to get the young man Duce (Robinson) going. You’ve got two really good backs and some receivers who can be fun.”
9. It was difficult for the defensive staff to really pinpoint a weakness of USC’s offense. Viney said it would be foolish to suggest there was one but said this: “It’ll be interesting to see the O-line’s chemistry with some new guys in there. Even with some of the new faces on offense. … The chemistry of the O-line, protecting the Heisman and getting the ball to some of those receivers will be interesting.”
The Trojans’ offensive line showed against the Spartans that it has some progress to make before the schedule gets more difficult during the second half of the season.
Top photo: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)