Balance has been critical for coordinator Clay Helton, USC offense

The numbers so far for the USC offense are pretty impressive.

Through two games, the Trojans have averaged 57 points, 623 yards and nine yards per play. There have been eight touchdowns rushing, seven touchdowns passing. And they have converted 100 percent of the opportunities in the red zone, including nine of 10 touchdowns with one field goal.

It’s hard to imagine things going much better for Trojans offensive coordinator Clay Helton since he took over play calling duties from Steve Sarkisian prior to the start of the season. Sure, the first two opponents, both from the Sun Belt Conference, figured to give up big stats to a USC offense with so many weapons, but it’s always important to actually go out and execute in a game situation.

Perhaps no stat indicates the success the Trojans have had with the rhythm and flow of the offense than the fact that they have rushed the ball 69 times, and passed the ball 69 times. It’s one thing to preach balance, yet Helton has put an early stamp on the notion of spreading the ball around, maintaining the up-tempo style that is so important to Sarkisian, and still sticking to the core principle of a run-first system that sets up the pass.

“The success so far both in the run and pass game, those two always go hand in hand with us,” Helton said. “We have to see that balance, and when we’re successful in the run game I think you see the kind of explosive plays that are out there. We averaged eight yards per play in the first game, 10 yards per play in the second. The big reason for that is because our run game is going so well.”

That’s not to say things have been perfect. There were five sacks given up in the season opener, a few missed deep passes from Cody Kessler, and a puzzling third-down conversion rate that doesn’t seem to fit with how well everything else is going to this point. Helton points to the improvement shown in week two with no sacks and a trio of accurate touchdown passes from Kessler, and looks for continued focus on getting things right in the future.

“Last week we focused on pass protection, deep ball accuracy and third down conversions,” Helton said. “We got two of the three accomplished and anything that didn’t get done is my fault as the coordinator. Whether it’s maybe calling a little better play in a certain situation, that falls on me, and we’ll get that done this week.”

One of the interesting dynamics of the play-calling set-up for the Trojans is that Helton is on the sidelines during games. It’s an age-old debate in college football in terms of a play-caller being in the press box or on the sidelines, but Helton says the Trojans are in a unique position with an offensive staff that features so many former signal-callers, and that allows him the benefit of being on the sideline to work closely with his quarterback.

“We have a great situation with Tee Martin up in the box and coach Sarkisian and coach Tui (Marques Tuiasosopo) down on the field, so you’re talking about four former quarterbacks on this staff that have played the game,” Helton said. “I’m being provided such great information, and maybe if the scenario was a little different I would be up in the press box. But I have the best of both worlds, I’m getting terrific information so I know exactly what’s going on, and I get to be eyeball-to-eyeball with Cody, which is very soothing both for myself and for him to be able to explain exactly what we want on the next series.”

Now the level of opponent goes up in the coming week with the Stanford Cardinal coming to town, and Helton knows that means a physical style of football will be needed in order to succeed.

“You don’t see them miss assignments,” Helton said. “You have to physically beat them one-on-one, because they aren’t going to give you anything easy. They’ve always been a physical run defense trying to load the box, and the balance of run vs. pass on offense is what we are so we have to be able to run the ball against a very good rush defense that is led by a tough group of linebackers. If we can do that, I think it will lead to some one-on-one shots down the field.”