A free-flowing weekly conversation on USC football with Pac-12 Networks analyst Yogi Roth that includes an examination of Kedon Slovis and the passing offense, Kenan Christon, the Trojans' road woes and a prediction for Friday's game at Colorado.
Adam Maya (1): What are you seeing from Kedon Slovis right now? I had some pretty good dialogue with Clay Helton and Graham Harrell and Slovis himself about what he thinks is going on. When you watch the film, what do you see?
Yogi Roth: When I watched the last game specifically, he didn't seem as committed to his decisions as he had previously. He didn't seem like, yes, I'm going here. In this offense, it's a pure progression offense. It's not about the defense. It's not about where are they rotating to and about anticipating where the rotation is or anticipating the coverage. It's all about the timing, tempo, and anticipation of your progression. So, take my three-step drop, usually for them, and I'm looking to my left, if it's there, take it. If it's not there, I'm going to my number two, if it's not there, I go to my (running) back, or I go to my third. In a progression, you have to kind of stop at each checkpoint so the defense either goes there or covers it and it opens up the following person in your progression. And I felt as though he wasn't, he didn't play with the command that I saw him play with in the Stanford game. That speaks to confidence to a certain degree and/or hesitation. I think those two go hand in hand.
Maya: Regarding that Stanford game, because that was Slovis' first game and he played so well, I think he's kind of been chasing that performance a little bit. He played it near perfect. And so for him to say, when I make a mistake, I need to move on and not compound it by making a second and third in a row, it made me wonder, are you trying to be perfect? And because you sorta were in your first start, are you holding onto it a little bit too much?
Roth: He just hasn't to me been in command. In this offense it forces you to be dramatically committed to what you see. Go back to one of the fundamental rules in the system is, your reads are sacred. You go to any Air Raid offense and that's one of the first things on the board, is your reads are sacred, so you got to trust your eyes. So I think at times, and every freshman -- again, we talked about it with (Josh) Rosen, we talked about it with Sam (Darnold), we talked about it with JT (Daniels) last year -- everybody goes trough it. I see it now with Jayden Daniels, a true freshman, and with other guys. Once you start to really play, there can be so much that goes in your head because you're trying to add to your plate versus keep it really, really simple. That's the brilliance of this system. For him, it's not about figuring out what teams are trying to do to you. It's about just saying, is he open, is he not? Is he open, is he not? And just working through your progressions. When he's not, take off and go.
Maya (2): We don't want to put it all on him. This passing offense definitely goes through its lulls. It happened n the first half of the Notre Dame game, it happened at points versus BYU, and it obviously happened through a good amount of the Arizona game. What do you feel like the offense can do better or needs to do moving forward. They can get away with it versus Arizona, but they won't when they play Oregon.
Roth: Yeah, well, I think the biggest thing for this offense is, you need to run the football just to try to take away possessions from the opponent. That's this game. That's the Oregon game. And I think also to settle yourself down, and more most importantly to not have your offense dictated by the score or the situation. When you get behind, of course that's what happens. So I just think for them, they're still generating confidence, when you look at the injuries they have, the depth has taken a hit, and things like pass protection, guys not seeing certain stems and twists up front and different types of blitzes that'll come. I think this game is a really good one for them to get ready for Oregon. Because it's a hard place to play, it's gonna be packed. And there's a dislike for the Trojans, so the student section will be crazy. There's no stadium like this in the Pac-12, in terms of people being on top of you, they'll be jawing with you the whole game.
I think this is a great test for the character rebuild of this program, being on the road. Offensively, how do you shut it down? You gotta jump out to a lead. When Colorado's confident, I'd argue that their offense can be as explosive as really any in this conference because of their quarterback and because of the dynamic playmakers they have, not just at receiver but they got two backs. You'll see their freshman running back, Jaren Mangham and be like, whoa. That guy. When he gets going, he looks the part. I think for USC being on the road, you got tot jump out and get off to a nice start.
Maya: I want to discuss the road in a moment, but is it concerning that in each game, the defense is able to take away Amon-Ra St. Brown or Michael Pittman, or sometimes quiet both of them. We've seen it quite a bit now.
Roth: If you can take away, especially with a young quarterback, their first read right. At times, obviously they're trying to feed the two guys that you referenced, which they should. But knowing Colorado, 'SC's going to have better athletes. And if I'm 'SC, I'm going to attack the middle of the field. This is an opportunity for big-time RPOs, and I don't mean quarterback runs here, but hand it off or work your slot receivers. This linebacking corps is a downhill linebacking corps. They're going to come, stop, commit to the run, but I think you can stress that attack in between the hashes in this game. And that's what I would do.
I don't think Colorado will try to take one guy away. They haven't necessarily tried to do that. I don't think their personnel allows them to go do that. Because I don't know if they have the personnel to say, let's just double somebody and leave somebody open on the backside, especially since they've dealt with some injuries in the back end. I would expect them to play it straight. It'll be Utah-esque, in terms of they'll trying to win with their front. They'll bring an extra guy here and there, especially boundary pressures, and they'll try to play coverage and disrupt timing. That to me is what I would imagine they would do in this ballgame.
Maya (3): A better question perhaps is if Arizona did anything notable. Its passing defense coming last week was horrific. And yet, they really were able to minimize the damage. What were they doing effectively against USC?
Roth: I didn't feel like it was a lot of bracket coverages. They're similar to Arizona State. There's so much movement. They love to play with four down linemen, but I think their best personnel grouping, and you saw that in the 'SC game, is not that. It's best when they're in a 3-4 personnel grouping, getting all their best linebackers on the field. At times a 3-3 personnel grouping. I think you saw them, there's was just so much movement, at times all 11 guys would be standing up. You remember that early in the game, they're bringing pressures. It's just a different look and they try to create some chaos and at times did a nice job at it. That's what I liked about 'SC, when they needed to, they were able to dictate terms in the run game. And I think they'll be able to do that again this week, at least that's what I would assume against the light front of Colorado.
Maya: I like the idea of running the ball. I've been pushing it all year. But I'm surprised you would say it for this game given that they are down, their top three backs, and true freshman Kenan Christon is kind of the the man of the hour.
Roth: I don't think you can survive, 'SC will struggle if they're dropping back 50 times. As much as we think it's the back, it is in pass pro, so if you're in third-and-7+ all day long, you got no chance. So I still run the football on early downs. If you go out there and you're like, all right, let's just pick them apart, you're allowing yourself to get exposed a little bit in the pass rush. And I don't know what these backs are like in pass rush, but nobody does. And they don't have any experience doing this on a big stage other than a few snaps or a few drives in the previous game. I think you gotta run it early, just to let them know you're willing to.
Maya (4): Going back to the road, USC for the last year and a half has really struggled . Some of it is quality of opponent, that goes without saying. Texas, Stanford and Utah last year, Washington and Notre Dame this year. But some of it seems to be them. They get out of their rhythm and routine. Generally speaking, is there something you've noticed about why teams struggle on the road, a common thread beyond the fact that they aren't playing in their home stadium?
Roth: Of course there's the natural comfort of playing at home, but to me it's the trust and communication that I see as the biggest thing. Not necessarily sideline to quarterback, but offensive line to quarterback, offensive line to quarterback to running back and pass protection. Offensive line to quarterback to tight end to wide receiver, who's on and off the ball. Personnel groupings coming in and out, at times late on the defensive side. Special teams errors, trying to get a block, your hands aren't below your eyes and you get a roughing the kicker or roughing the punter penalty. To me. the skill is not focus, the skill is refocus. Do you have the ability after chaos to refocus? When I see a turnover, I fast forward right to the next offensive drive. What did they call and what did the quarterback do? I think that's the biggest thing, are guys shook? Sometimes they don't even know it. So then you gotta call a play, or call the series a little differently and then you waste a drive just to calm your team down.
There's an element of a lot of things, but to me it's the resiliency factor. I look forward to this game for 'SC so much because I do think they are a different team culture-wise, even if their road record doesn't show it. BYU and U-Dub, those are so different. First road start for a true freshmen (at BYU), and then third-string quarterback (at Washington). I don't think this is the same road team that we saw last year. Even a Notre Dame game, in a loss, I still think that Clay has altered the culture there and made it a more resilient one. But some of the realities of being young and inexperienced have clearly been exposed on the road.
Maya (5): Finally, what do you expect from this game? What are you predicting?
Roth: I think 'SC needs to jump out early. I think that's the biggest thing. If you give Colorado life, they'll win the game. They are talented. Laviska Shenault hasn't really gone off since early in the season. K.D. Nixon, those two guys I imagine are at their healthiest. They'll get up for this game. Steven Montez is a fifth-year senior. When he completes 65 percent of his passes, I think they have one loss in the last year and a half. They can go win this game. If I'm 'SC, I'm running the football and I'm getting the ball to my playmakers. USC is a better tea. They have better personnel than the personnel they're going to face. I think that they win. I do think that 'SC can go on a run here but they got to get some of that confidence. They got to settle in with the Ducks coming into town next week. It's a scheduling advantage for 'SC, shorter week this week, longer week next week. I think they win. I think it's a competitive ballgame, and I think they should win by 10 or more.
Maya: Give me a score.
Roth: I'm going to go 38-24.
-- Adam Maya is a USC graduate and has been covering the Trojans since 2003. Follow him on Twitter @AdamJMaya.
-- Yogi Roth is a Pac-12 Networks college football analyst, award-winning filmmaker, scholar, New York Times best-selling author, coach, motivational speaker and world-traveler. Be sure to check out all his latest work.