Why does USC resist the spread?

October, 30, 2012
10/30/12
9:49
PM PT
Flipping between a USC game and an Oregon game feels a little bit like fast-forwarding five decades.

If you squint real hard while watching USC, you can mistake Matt Barkley's cardinal jersey for Joe Naimath's crimson Alabama jersey. In fact, if you were to watch some grainy, flickering film from the 1960s, you'd see the basic USC offense: a running back, often a fullback and a quarterback under center.

So, why can't the Trojans be more like Oregon? Why can't they blur the line between grass-and-mud football and Tron? And more to the point in this disappointing season for the Trojans, should they? Will they have to one day?

It seems worth asking these questions this week, sandwiched around that loss against one spread team (Arizona) and this Saturday's meeting with the Ducks, who probably have the best spread offense in the country.

The Trojans are increasingly isolated by the spread of the spread. Ole Miss is now running it under first-year coach Hugh Freeze and, when a team with "Ole" in its name runs a system, it might be time to adjust. The movement's waters have moved particularly aggressively on the West Coast. The newest coaches in the Pac-12, Rich Rodriguez at Arizona and Mike Leach at Washington State, are two gurus of the spread.

Even Lane Kiffin, who literally grew up around the NFL, has learned to appreciate its explosive potential and, he says, universal applicability in the college game.

"I would disagree that it didn't work at Michigan," Kiffin said. "They didn't stop anybody. That wasn't because of the offense. Rich-Rod put up a ton of points and yards. I don't know them offhand, I just remember seeing scores like 52-48 and stuff like that.

"I think you can definitely run a spread offense at a national, storied program. I don't think it makes any difference."

So, why is USC stubbornly clinging to antiquated notions such as: keep your quarterback upright, take your time in the huddle and, at least occasionally, hand the ball off? Because the minute USC changes -- if it ever changes -- it could squander its biggest edge. Because, while spread elements have increasingly infiltrated the NFL, a system like Oregon's might never fly there.

Why? In short, it's the cost of insurance. Five of the nine highest-paid players in the NFL are quarterbacks and all of them are making more than $12 million. The average NFL quarterback makes roughly $2 million and the average starter makes several times that. If you're an NFL owner, the last thing you're willing to do is send a $15 million investment racing along at the mercy of rampaging safeties.

And, as long as the NFL resists the spread, so will USC. Its greatest challenge is also, perhaps, its ultimate redemption. The Trojans land players the Ducks never could, because those players often have dreams of getting rich.

"You're trying to go to a college team that prepares you for an NFL team," receiver Robert Woods said. "That's why I chose USC. I felt like it will prepare me for the next level."

Between 1992 and 2011, only Ohio State produced more NFL draft picks than the 111 the Trojans churned out. USC has had more first-rounders than any team in the nation since the draft started in 1936.

Coming off a trip to the BCS title game in 2011, the Ducks had one player drafted. That player, Casey Matthews, happens to be the younger brother of ex-Trojan Clay Matthews, who might be the most dominant defensive player in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers. Casey Matthews has made six tackles this season for the Philadelphia Eagles.

So, for USC fans, the trade-off might be talent over innovation. If, at times like these, it seems like a poor transaction, perhaps patience is in order. Trends don't tend to last forever.

"A mistake people make is they try to copy people, but they don't know the ins and outs of it," Kiffin said. "Just like in our runs here, people used to come visit us and you'd watch them go and try to run our offense and it wouldn't work because they wouldn't know how to fix problems.

"Same thing there. I don't think you can go try to copy people. People try to do that all the time and then it doesn't work."

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

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