There's a reason USC has been known as "Tailback U" in the past, as Trojans offenses have been dominated by running backs through the years.
Recent history, however, suggests that Trojans seem to be better at producting quarterbacks. The offensive numbers this season certainly seem to support the notion that the Trojans have become a passing team. USC has gained more than twice as many passing yards than rushing yards (1,589 passing to 683 rushing) and has called 31 more pass plays than run plays. USC head coach Lane Kiffin strives for balance in the offense and knows that sooner or later the run game is going to need to be more of a factor in order for the team to see continued success.
"We want to be an offense that starts with running the football," Kiffin said. "So far this season we've been up and down in our run game, very inconsistent with all the new players up front. We haven't seen the same type of explosive plays in the run game that we have in the passing game. We can't do that all year, or we will get exposed."
It's hard to argue with the success of the USC passing attack, with Matt Barkley and Robert Woods leading the way to some record-breaking results. The run game, on the other hand, has yet to really get on track, with senior starting running back Marc Tyler missing the opening game due to suspension and the offensive line going through three different starters in the first three games at the left guard spot.
There have been some moments for the ground game. Tyler has two 100-yard games, and Curtis McNeal broke off a long 44-yard run, but it's not at the level players and coaches need it to be when facing the remaining opponents on the USC schedule.
"We've made some strides week in and week out," center Khaled Holmes said. "It's been a good thing having the same five on the O-line for a few weeks now. We just need to polish up some of the little things. Once we clean those up it will be the difference between a 4-yard gain and a big play."
Pac-12 leaders Oregon and Stanford still await for the Trojans, as well as Notre Dame, but first USC must contend with the multiple defensive alignments presented by Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. At various times the Golden Bears may line up in a 3-4, a 4-3 or a Bear front, and they do it all while rotating a lot of players within those various personnel groups.
"They really do run it all, and they do a great job," Holmes said. "A big key for us will be identifying our proper assignments. Oregon saw a lot of success running the ball against them last week, but that's just what Oregon does."
The Ducks ran the ball for 365 yards in a 43-15 victory over Cal last Thursday night. It was the first time this year an opponent had sustained rushing success against a Golden Bears defense that had given up only 78 yards per game on the ground to that point.
Kiffin pointed out that those rushing totals from Oregon are abnormal when judging the Cal defense because of the unique style of offense that Oregon runs. The Trojans are averaging 136.6 yards rushing per game right now. They would like to see that total increase even more, but it remains to be seen which backs will be called upon to carry that load.
Tyler is obviously the lead back for this team, and he is in the best shape he's been in all season after missing fall camp. McNeal has shown flashes and is the most likely to have his carries increase, but it's no sure thing it will happen. D.J. Morgan led the team in rushing in the opener but has put the ball on the ground a few times, to the great displeasure of the coaches. Dillon Baxter doesn't appear to be an option. Amir Carlisle has returned from an ankle injury in time to possibly see action in his hometown, but don't be surprised if George Farmer is the one who gets a long look after recently moving to tailback from wide receiver.
It's rare to burn a player's redshirt year after not playing him in the first five games, but there are a lot of signs pointing to the speedy Farmer getting an opportunity to provide the kind of game-breaking presence the coaches want from the position. If that happens, perhaps the desired balance, which would help the USC defense by creating longer drives and giving it more time off the field, will be found.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.