Air Raid…USC…Championship: Do Those Words FIT?

Charles Fischer, Mr. FishDuck Editorials

It has been part of the conference buzz for a couple of years: can USC win a conference title and National Championship with the Air Raid Offense? It makes sense to get to know the conference opponent that is recruiting as well (or better) than Oregon and will be the probable south opponent in the Pac-12 Championship game for years to come. We all have our own knee-jerk reactions to the title above, but as I began to research and ponder it–the conclusion became a bit more unsettled for me and, I suspect, Trojan fans.

When asked whether the Air Raid is an offense USC can win championships with, Pac-12 Analyst (and former USC QB coach) Yogi Roth answered on the Pac-12 Channel in December with…

“Yes I do. Clay Helton didn’t install it to not win championships. Clay gets it, he knows the standard at USC. I don’t think they need widespread changes, otherwise Graham Harrell (offensive coordinator) wouldn’t be there.”

That sounds a lot like whistling through the graveyard to me.

John McGillen of USC Athletics

Drake London found a ton of space in the Duck defense.

The Air Raid is an offense where 75% of the plays are passes regardless of the defense. Mike Leach liked to say that he did not believe in defensive coverages, and Graham Harrell (a former Air Raid QB of Leach’s at Texas Tech) stated the goal as “find space and throw it to the space.” The offense is dependent upon precise execution, but precision requires reps, and the required practice time did not exist this past year due to COVID restrictions.

The Air Raid is considered “a great equalizer” for teams with less talent than their opponent. But what if you are the Trojans and you do have superior talent?  Does this offense dilute your advantage or enhance it?

When Washington State (under Mike Leach) went 11-2 and beat Oregon four years in a row, the primary difference from prior years was the quality of the Cougar defense. Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch (and two other assistants now at Oregon) really held down the Duck offense before Grinch departed to Ohio State to be their DC. If any team in the Pac-12 south can recruit superb defensive talent it is USC; thus a primary component for success may not be related to the Air Raid offense at all?

Dennis Hammond of Long Photography

Bru McCoy, No. 4, gets open via Air Raid concepts.

The Air Raid has appeared in the Playoffs twice with Oklahoma, but the issues for the Sooners were their defense and injuries. Could the Air Raid go all-the-way? Wouldn’t a team like an Oklahoma or USC be just the profile needed as a complete team to win a National Championship?

Naw.  USC’s short-yardage problems are legendary, as key third and fourth downs were blown against the Ducks in December. When asked about snapping under center inside the five yard line, Graham Harrell answered with, “it’s not what we do.” Yet that door was opened with the hiring this last January of new offensive line coach Clay McGuire, who was on the Texas Tech and WSU staffs with Leach. He stated that running the ball in 2021 will look “significantly different” with more “multiple packages.” Hmmm. That is sufficiently vague enough to scoff at or give you hope depending which fan base you are a part of….

Oregon faced negative recruiting in the early years of the Spread Offense as opponents would pound recruits with, “it does not prepare you for the NFL.” Well ditto for the Air Raid, as the toughness in the run game is simply not present, for example. Could this damage recruiting efforts in the future to Troy?

Dennis Hammond of Long Photography

Brandon Dorlus, No. 97. is about to make a sack that should not happen in the Air Raid Offense.

Legendary Coach Tony DeMeo won an amazing 92% of his games once he got the lead in the fourth quarter. He told me, “ask my conference opponents what happened when I got the fourth quarter lead? They never saw the ball again…”

Controlling the football in the fourth quarter is just as important as scoring in the first three. The collapse of Washington State against UCLA two years ago with a 30+ point lead in the second half illustrates how the Air Raid may not match up well in the big games?

As I ponder this while re-watching the Pac-12 Championship game, two things stand out. The first is how the precise patterns of Mike Leach’s Air Raid teams were not present with USC this last December, and by a mile. You could almost never sack a Cougar quarterback because they got rid of the ball so quickly, and thus it was strange to see a Kedon Slovis stand in the pocket so long against the Ducks.

Pac-12 Network Video

Jamal Hill makes THE game-saving interception in the Pac-12 Championship.

Yet despite these imperfections, a case could be made that USC should have won, as their self-inflicted wounds were the deciding factors. A late dropped pass deep in Oregon territory by a freshman Trojan receiver and the boneheaded pass that enabled Jamal Hill to make his incredible interception sealed the deal for the Ducks. Based on this semi-objective assessment, I could say that USC has a ton of upside left in this offense. The real answers will begin to surface in 2021.

I believe strongly in a balanced offense, but results are what matters. Can the Trojans make the final step with the Air Raid offense?

“Oh how we love to ponder about Our Beloved Ducksand their opponents!”

Charles Fischer   (Mr. FishDuck)
Eugene, Oregon
Top Photo by UO Athletics

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