The most difficult part of judging a play-caller in football is the gap between process and outcome.
Play-calling is about process and approach, and while it’s linked to outcome, execution and talent carry a heavy weight. This is to say, as South Carolina’s offense was struggling early in an eventual Outback Bowl win against Michigan, interim offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon wasn’t necessarily calling plays poorly.
He said he didn’t simply empty the playbook that day, and now that he’s been promoted to run the offense full-time, it’s worth looking back at some of the tweaks and flourishes he deployed both early on and during the comeback.
This was a concept Shawn Elliott liked under Steve Spurrier, even when a quarterback was only somewhat mobile. It’s a good way to attack the edge and a good kind of change-up, especially when a defensive end is crashing down. Former USC quarterback Perry Orth does a good job explaining why it’s effective here:
The Gamecocks used it twice against Michigan. The first time was most noteworthy, when Rico Dowdle went 17 yards for USC’s first score. Michigan blitzes its linebacker away from the play, meaning the key is the receiver getting a good block and the playside tackle cutting off the linebacker.
Both do their job, and Dowdle got more than 7 yards before needing to throw a move and shake defenders.
USC ran the same play later on, but Zack Bailey couldn’t get to the linebacker, and it was held to no gain.
Triple Option RPO
This is a nifty play that fuses old and new ideas. Inside the box, the quarterback is reading an unblocked lineman and running what amounts to a standard zone read.
But after that, the quarterback reads a defender in the flat and can dump the ball off to a short receiver on a screen. It functions like an old-school triple option, reading a pair of edge defenders.
USC ran it once for 11 yards to Bryan Edwards to get off the goal line, and appeared to run it again, but a botched exchange ended in a fumble (to the nonexpert eye, it looked as if the back tried to keep the ball when it should’ve been let go).
USC had spent most of the season as one of the slowest-paced teams in the country, and McClendon certainly turned up the tempo. The downside of going fast is that going fast on its own doesn’t guarantee success, and the downside of failure is bigger.
USC had 11 drives last less than 2 minutes, and most didn’t include one first down. On the plus side, drives of 77 and 81 yards were only 3:17 and 2:12.
Will Muschamp said he felt that tempo helped tire the Wolverines some late, and they weren’t as crisp, but it also helped that USC’s defense stood tall for 78 plays and 34 minutes.
The big adjustment:
Muschamp cited the big halftime change USC made as going for heavier protections against Michigan’s blitz-happy front seven.
USC only once had more than five stay in and protect in the first half, and that produced a 38-yard deep shot. After the break, USC had six or seven in protection on seven of 14 true dropbacks (there were eight plays that looked like RPOs).
Keeping players in took the likes of A.J. Turner, Rico Dowdle and, sometimes, Hayden Hurst out of play-making, but it also opened things in the secondary, where USC had some good matchups.
The third-down question:
Through 2017, Gamecocks fans just killed Kurt Roper for a reliance on inside zone and non-edge runs on third and short. USC actually came out of the regular season somewhat average on those plays, but the misses stuck out and seemed to come in bunches.
South Carolina faced three such situations against the Wolverines and took three different approaches.
5:56 Q2: Third and 1, USC 44
The Gamecocks came out with two tight ends and a bigger receiver in Chad Terrell, with three players split out and Jake Bentley under center (USC rushed from huddle to line, creating the look of a potential QB sneak). Terrell and Hurst motion in, creating an eight-man front, and Michigan countered with eight or nine in the box.
USC simply needed to win the battle up front and didn’t get surge. Instead, Gamecocks linemen were pushed back, with the notable matchup of Hurst, not a dynamite blocker, trying to hold off former No. 1 recruit Rashan Gary and Maurice Hurst driving Zack Bailey into the backfield.
2:15 Q2: Third and 2, USC 47
After an 8-yard run, the Gamecocks showed some hustle getting to the line, but ended up checking with the sideline instead of a quick snap. Michigan kept eight players close to the line.
Out of the pistol, the play might have been a zone read or inside zone. If it was a read, Bentley gives it on what looks like a keep situation. If not, it didn’t totally matter because a stunt left Hayden Hurst blocking no one and a free runner coming up the gut. There’s a breakdown somewhere in there, and running that way shows some faith in the line.
3:56 Q3: Third and 1
USC doesn’t go into a run look, and actually breaks out an old play that drew some fire a season ago.
The call is a pick play. Two of the three receivers on the wide side of the field run clear-out routes. Hayden Hurst runs a cross, but most of his job is to sell his route, draw his defender with him and get in the way of a linebacker trying to get outside to cover the running back in the flat.
Hurst and the receivers did their job, and Michigan helped with an inside linebacker blitz. Dowdle had room to go and got 11 yards.
That pick call was the same one USC tried to use in the fourth quarter against Georgia on a fourth down in 2016. Hurst’s defender read it and blew the play up, and Hurst took the blame for not selling his route well.
The conversion proved important, as USC went on to score its first touchdown on the drive.
Going for the kill:
This wasn’t really a choice that was probably out of character for USC this season (people tend to forget when such plays don’t work), but it was the kind that makes folks feel good when it works.
USC’s defense had recovered a fumble on Michigan’s 21. McClendon went for a big play right after, a favorite move of Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks brought in a second tight end for only the second time in the game, giving a run look.
Instead USC went for extra protection off a play-fake. Three intermediate defenders bit up, and it appeared Hayden Hurst’s route held the safety just enough to create a window for a perfectly placed ball to Bryan Edwards on a post (the receiver made a perfect catch to match).
Two plays you’ll like:
The 53-yard bomb.
This wasn’t something particularly new, but it finally worked.
The route combination has the slot run a fade, while the outside receiver runs an in, a take on the popular “smash” concept. USC tried it a few time early in the season, mostly unsuccessfully, once when Jake Bentley went deep on 3rd and medium, drawing some ire.
But it finally clicked. Shi Smith got the separation he needed with a slight double move. Bentley put the ball in the right spot.
Hurst to the rescue
This isn’t exactly a called play, but considering it set up the Smith bomb, it’s worth highlighting.
On third and 17, things were, basically, blown up.
A well-set up overload blitz and an interior lineman losing his man had Bentley flushed out and running toward the sideline. Most of the time, this is, at best, a throw away and a punt.
Hayden Hurst said he just tried to work the way Bentley was going and get upfield. That’s the kind of thing built in practice, awareness to know what to do and how to work together on a scramble. Bentley make a good throw, and Hurst made a great play to cut in front of the defender and haul in a tough catch.