USC expects to use another pass-heavy plan at Arizona State
LOS ANGELES — When Clay Helton brought the Air Raid offense to Southern California this season, he stressed that it could be executed in such a way to maintain balance between run and pass.
However, injuries at running back and playing from behind have forced the Trojans to lean heavily on the pass in their past two games, throwing the ball 66 percent of the time against Colorado and 73 percent against Oregon.
While it might not be the approach Helton would prefer, he seems to accept it is the most effective way right now.
“It’s about getting our best playmakers the ball,” Helton said. “And that’s what we’re doing. That’s what we believe in is to try to get those wideouts the ball. And as we gain more backs, yeah, we’d love to be able to hand it off more.”
While USC (5-4, 4-2 Pac-12) was able to pick up yards early on in its 56-24 loss to the No. 7 Ducks, the lack of options in the run game proved costly inside Oregon territory. Kenan Christon, a 185-pound freshman running back, was unable to break through an arm tackle on a run at the goal line in the first quarter, forcing USC to settle for a short field goal.
On the next trip inside the 10, USC called three pass plays, which resulted in quarterback Kedon Slovis being stripped of the ball on a sack. Oregon would drive 92 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, the first of three scores by the Ducks in a span of 2:28 late in the second quarter that put the game out of reach.
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell acknowledged that having the speedy but small Christon left to handle the running game played a part in how he called plays in short yardage and red-zone situations.
“Kenan is a special player, and he has a different skill set,” Harrell said. “At the end of the day, he can’t carry it 30 times. One, he’s a true freshman, and two, he’s pretty light.”
USC would end up throwing the ball 57 times against Oregon, compared to 21 designed runs. That imbalance put added pressure on the freshman Slovis to play a perfect game, something he could not do as he threw three interceptions and lost that critical fumble.
“Obviously you have some tipped balls and stuff that doesn’t go your way, but some like the fumble, you got third down, you got to protect the ball,” Slovis said. “If you take the sack, that’s fine, you get to kick the field goal. You just got to know the situation better and I got to do a better job with that.”
The game plan this week against Arizona State is likely to again be tilted towards the pass because of continued absences at running back. Helton was not optimistic that junior Stephen Carr would return this week against Arizona State after missing the past two games because of a hamstring injury. Though Carr did some work to test his hamstring in practice Tuesday, Helton said it is more likely that he would play against California on Nov. 16.
Helton also is targeting the game at the Golden Bears as a possible return for redshirt junior Vavae Malepeai, who had knee surgery in late October.
With the uncertain status of Carr and Malepeai, Helton expects Christon to get between 15 to 20 touches against the Sun Devils. Christon had 14 carries for 76 yards against the Buffaloes and 15 carries for 79 yards against the Ducks.
Other options behind Christon would include former walk-on Quincy Jountti and using wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown at running back.
“That’s our challenge as coaches whenever you have depth issues is to still figure out a way to establish the run game however we got to do it,” Harrell said.
NOTES: DE Drake Jackson (ankle) and S Talanoa Hufanga (shoulder) returned to practice Tuesday and could play this week. Jackson, who leads the team with 8 1/2 tackles for loss and 3 1/2 sacks, and Hufanga, who is second with 51 tackles, have each missed the past two games.
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