Graham Harrell is a very blunt man.
In USC’s media availability Tuesday morning leading up to the Crosstown Showdown — USC vs. UCLA, for those of you who live under a literal rock — the Trojans’ offensive coordinator was asked his level of concern about USC’s run game.
“I think when the quarterback goes 17-of-17 to end the half and throws five touchdowns, you’re doing some things well,” Harrell said, subtle Southern twang and all. “So that’s our level of concern.”
I appreciated the bluntness from Harrell, I really did. But it left one question burning like an inferno in my mind. Honestly, it’s only a slight exaggeration to say it kept me from sleeping peacefully the rest of the week:
What if the quarterback doesn’t go 17-of-17 to end the half and throw five touchdowns? *Insert collective gasp here.*
What is USC supposed to do if sophomore Kedon Slovis is playing more like Weeks 1 and 2 Slovis than Week 5 Slovis? It wouldn’t be the end of the world (hey, I wrote about that very fact), but it would mean the Trojans have to find a way to move the ball on the ground rather than relying solely on the air attack.
Enter: Redshirt senior running back Vavae Malepeai.
Actually, no, not yet. Enter: A UCLA defense that knew how to attack a one-dimensional offense with zone coverage and drop-eight. Slovis was out of rhythm and clearly not at his best, so the Trojans’ inability to run the football cost them, leaving the offense stagnant and off the scoreboard early.
What’s your level of concern now, Mr. Harrell?
Enter: Malepeai, for real this time. An 11-yard gain. An 8-yard gain. A 1-yard loss. A 7-yard gain. On four consecutive plays.
USC would eventually cap off that drive early in the second quarter with a missed field goal — which sailed, oh, only about three miles wide right off the powerful leg of freshman kicker Parker Lewis — and UCLA took a 14-0 lead nearly five minutes later.
It seemed like the Trojans were in deep trouble, and they were. But little did we know, the most subtle of damage had been done. USC had shown it was going to run the ball, and on that night, it was going to do so effectively.
Over the course of the game, the Bruins gradually resorted to their typical defensive approach of heavy blitz packages, pressure and aggressiveness, leaving their secondary with little option but to play man-on-man coverage.
Translation: a Thanksgiving feast for USC’s receivers.
If you’re gonna play man against USC, you’re gonna have a bad time. Just ask Jake Dickert, defensive coordinator for the Washington State Cougars.
That bad time manifested in an eight-reception, 128-yard, one-touchdown performance from redshirt senior wide receiver Tyler Vaughns; a 10-reception, 73-yard, two-touchdown showing from junior receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and a five-reception, 97-yard, two-touchdown outing from sophomore receiver Drake London.
Remember when the Golden State Warriors had Kevin Durant, Steph Curry and Klay Thompson on the same team at the same time? That’s what this USC receiving corps reminds me of. You don’t need all three to put up performances reminiscent of my outburst in the first round of the USC Fall 2020 intramural flag football playoffs. You don’t even really need two. If one has a great game, you’ve got a pretty damn good chance, as long as the other two don’t look like 10-year-olds in Pee Wee.
If all three go nuts, like on Saturday? Good luck.
Yes, the Trojans almost lost that game to UCLA despite all three going nuts. But, as the saying goes, “almost” only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
The difference, though — a mere 5 points or a mere 52 seconds, depending on how you look at it — was so small, and the impact of a functioning run game so large, that it’s hard to believe USC stood a chance if it weren’t for Malepeai. His heroic performance of 110 yards and a touchdown, plus multiple conversions on third-and-short, a situation that had been USC’s kryptonite all season, made all the difference.
In the postgame press conference, Slovis said head coach Clay Helton told him on the sideline to take a shot if he saw man coverage. And that’s what he got. (Much of that is to the credit of freshman receiver Gary Bryant Jr., whose 56-yard kickoff return got USC into UCLA territory and a place where running the ball seemed like a viable option.)
Vaughns then burned redshirt junior defensive back Mo Osling III and elevated for a ball Slovis floated enough to get over Osling’s head but with enough zip that fellow Bruin redshirt junior defensive back Quentin Lake couldn’t get there in time.
On the next play, Slovis said, USC had called a run play. But at the line of scrimmage, Slovis saw man coverage again, and he changed it to a run-pass option instead. St. Brown then burned redshirt junior defensive back Rayshad Williams, Slovis put the fade where it needed to be and that was that.
USC media and fans alike have been making a fuss about the run game all year, and for good reason. The point has never been to carry the offense. It shouldn’t. USC has arguably the best receiving corps in the nation, and I haven’t even mentioned redshirt freshman Bru McCoy.
No, the point of the run game was always just to present it as a threat, so that at the end of the day, Harrell, Slovis and USC’s offense had the freedom to say to hell with the run game and let the Trojans’ receivers do their thing.
On Saturday, they did their thing.
And it’s in no small part because Malepeai did his first.
Nathan Ackerman is a junior writing about USC football. He is also an associate managing editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “The Wrap,” runs every Monday during football season.