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The business of the USC offense has no quick fix

15 AUG 2016: Southern California quarterback Max Browne (4) in action as Southern California Head Coach Clay Helton looks on during USC fall football practice at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)
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USC quarterback Max Browne knows something about business, currently studying in the university’s Marshall Business School.

When he speaks of the starting quarterback job in business terms, it carries some weight.

Head coach Clay Helton’s decision to start redshirt freshman Sam Darnold ahead of Browne, the fourth-year junior, is indeed a business decision — much in the same way a middle-management shake-up follows slipping stock prices, but before investors vote on the replacement of a CEO.

The mobile Darnold provides the USC offense a new look — and the Trojans need a fresh approach after scoring a combined 16 points in losses to Alabama and Stanford. However, there is no immediate change that will serve as USC’s golden parachute.

USC’s offensive identity crisis has been building for several years, and reached a head with the team’s woes early in the 2016 season. There exists an idealized vision of how the USC offense should function: quarterback under center; tight ends and a lead-blocking fullback to supplement a powerful offensive line; power-run game setting up the play-action pass.

Lane Kiffin began tinkering with the Trojans’ offensive identity in his abbreviated tenure as head coach. Successor Steve Sarkisian did the same. USC’s product became football’s answer to New Coke.

In Helton’s brief run as head coach, and through three games of Tee Martin calling plays, the Trojans scrapped that formula and have seemingly tried recapturing the old — only the final product looks more generic than Classic.

USC’s problem is trying to recapture past magic. That look served the Trojans just fine a decade ago. When Alabama and Stanford both complement stifling defense with an imposing offensive attack, similar to USC’s look of the 2000s, it further underscored USC’s move away from that approach, and the program’s inability to recapture it.

Before he was a lauded offensive genius, Kiffin was the target of ridicule for his play-calling at USC. The criticisms were warranted, and frankly, little’s changed in his time at Alabama.

Kiffin’s offense still focuses heavily on a single receiver, often to the detriment of a capable tight end’s overall production. He still loves swings and screens. However, the current Alabama program has more in common with the USC teams on which Kiffin was an assistant a decade ago, than it does with the current incarnation of Trojan football.

For the Crimson Tide, it works because of their incredible talent gap, especially up front. Alabama routinely features the nation’s best front five, and many of the best skill-position players. A wide-enough talent gap can mask play-calling deficiencies quite effectively.

Stanford’s right behind Alabama in the offensive line department. And yet, head coach David Shaw reached a point when he had to shake up the offensive approach.

It wasn’t long ago — the end of the 2013 season, to be specific — when Shaw’s power philosophy came under fire. Stanford’s inability to muster yards in the second half of a Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State bled into the 2014 season.

The quick fix would have been replacing entrenched starting quarterback Kevin Hogan — and there were certainly calls for Shaw to do just that.

01 January 2016: Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) during the Rose Bowl Game between the Stanford Cardinal and the Iowa Hawkeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. Stanford has adapted to changing situations in the Pac-12. USC is trying to do the same, but good results can't be expected in short order.  (Photo by Katie Meyers/Icon Sportswire)

01 January 2016: Stanford Cardinal running back Christian McCaffrey (5) during the Rose Bowl Game between the Stanford Cardinal and the Iowa Hawkeyes at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA. Stanford has adapted to changing situations in the Pac-12. USC is trying to do the same, but good results can’t be expected in short order. (Photo by Katie Meyers/Icon Sportswire)

Rather than bench Hogan, However, Shaw moved a freshman slot receiver, Christian McCaffrey, into the backfield. He used him on swings and wheel routes and gave him some carries, using him in a variety of ways unlike predecessors Tyler Gaffney and Toby Gerhart, who flourished more between the tackles.

The irony of Stanford’s power offense thriving with the finesse twist McCaffrey provides is that this version of the Cardinal offense is the closest to USC’s 2005 look, when Reggie Bush ran to the Heisman Trophy with a highlight reel befitting a spread-offense back.

It was a simple innovation for Stanford, but the most popular business decisions often end up being the most basic.

For USC, benching Max Browne fulfills a cosmetic function. Its substance will be exposed rather quickly, with Utah boasting one of the most intimidating front sevens in the nation, powered by defensive lineman Lowell Lutolelei.

Darnold’s mobility might provide a temporary solution. In the long run, however, USC’s overall lack of offensive innovation is bad for business.

The business of the USC offense has no quick fix

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