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One Play that Might Help Decide the PAC 12 South

Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times

In what well may be a play that could dictate the champion of the PAC-12 South division, USC was able to connect on a 46 yard pass on 2nd and 10 to allow them to move deep into Colorado territory and eventually score what would be the winning touchdown as they defeated Colorado 21-17.

It looks like a bad luck play for Colorado, but when the play is broken down, there are several things that the Buffaloes did to help with their own bad fortune.

To set up the importance of this play, you need to understand how it got to this point.

On their previous drive, Colorado had scored on a 3rd and 9 pass from the USC 10 yard line to Bryce Bobo to tie the game at 14 each and pushed the flow of momentum clearly onto the side of the Buffaloes. For as bad as the first half was for Colorado, and as bad as they played on both sides of the line of scrimmage all day, this put Colorado in a position to make a stop on defense, get the ball back, and there was that sensation in the Los Angeles Coliseum that Colorado would be able to score again to more than likely win the game.

Following an incompletion on 1st down at their own 30 by USC Quarterback Sam Darnold, USC came out in a shotgun formation with two receivers to each side and the running back set to Sam Darnold’s left on 2nd and 10 from the USC 30. If Colorado would have got a stop on 2nd Down, the pressure would then have been squarely on the USC Freshman quarterback to make a throw.

The key to what would happen on this whole play happens in the pre-snap as USC motioned the tight end (3), which was flexed to the right in the slot, over to the left.

PAC 12 Network

This ensured that the far receiver to the USC left, Darreus Rogers (1), would have one-on-one coverage as the safety on that side of the ball for Colorado, would have to help with the number two and three receivers in coverage. If USC does not motion on this play, both safeties from Colorado would have both been able to split the difference on each side of their field, and assist with both receivers on each of their sides. The play was nothing more than four vertical routes by the USC receivers, which they had, ran a few times previously in the game, so the actual pay itself was not a shock to Colorado.

One distinct thing that is noticeable immediately is that as the play developed Colorado was unable to generate any pass rush at all. This was the reoccurring theme of the day for the Colorado offensive and defensive lines as they were dominated on both sides of the line of scrimmage. Without having to worry about a pass rush, Sam Darnold was able to run through his progressions, step into the pocket, and throw to the more open of his receivers, who in this case would be Rogers running one on one down the Colorado sideline.

PAC 12 Network

The ball from Darnold was very poorly under-thrown down the Colorado sideline. Colorado cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was in perfect position in front of Rogers to make a play on the ball. The big mistake that you see Witherspoon make is something that, as a former coach, you teach defensive backs not to do and that is not to jump too early. While to the naked eye it looks like both Witherspoon and Rogers go up for the ball at the same time, Witherspoon was in fact early. Witherspoon was able to get both hands on the ball for what surely looked like a Colorado interception, but Rogers was able to get over the top of Witherspoon as Witherspoon was coming down first.

When this happened, and as Witherspoon’s momentum is carrying him to towards the turf, Rogers was able to reach over Witherspoon, take the ball from his hands, sprint down the sidelines for a 46 yard reception, and USC would score four plays later and regain the lead for good 21-14.

PAC 12 Network
PAC 12 Network

Colorado would drive down on the next drive, but have to settle for a field goal, making the score 21-17. USC would get the ball back on the ensuing kickoff and was able to run out the last four minutes and win the game by that same score of 21-17.

While this play looks like a tough break for Colorado, there was several things that Colorado did not execute defensively that, if they do so, could have had them at 3-0 in the conference heading into a winnable game this weekend versus a beat up Arizona State team in Boulder. A win this Saturday by Colorado would not only have then moved them to 4-0 in conference play, but in essence could have given them a possible two game lead in the South Division as a one loss Utah still has to play # 5 Washington in Salt Lake City on October 29 while on the other side, Colorado will not face the Huskies this year.