USC: spread offense

Why does USC resist the spread?

October, 30, 2012
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.

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