I wade into this version of Musings with some trepidation. Clay Helton, of his own accord or under pressure from above, has decided to go a new direction with the USC offense. He has, thus far, stuck with Clancy Pendergast (photo above) on the other side of the ball. The offensive decision should have been an easy one at this point; there were times this season – say the second half of Cal – when the offense could have taken a knee three times and punted and there would have been no difference in productivity. Once things get that bad, you have to make a change. But the decision on defense is a more-difficult one, both because the defense did not always resemble a giant sink hole and because it’s harder to know where to assess blame for some of the defense’s problems. So, while trial lawyers are not as a class renowned for their humility, I hope to approach this question with at least a little. As my friend Kevin Bruce would remind me, I’m swimming in deep waters here.
What to make of Clancy Pendergast?
Now, before going any deeper, I note that at least one poster on the board has said that Clancy will be leaving, apparently at the end of the NFL season. And in light of the odd Clancy-is-fired/Clancy-is-not-fired roller coaster from a week or so ago, maybe there’s something to this.
We don’t know. We also don’t know who Clay could find to replace him. So I offer no opinion on whether Clancy Pendergast should be retained. I want to work through a different question: has Clancy Pendergast’s second tenure at USC been a success?
First, a necessary caveat. I have been critical of USC’s offensive staff as having unqualified people in charge. Those arguments are moot now since somebody – Clay Helton? Lynn Swann? – has concluded that the offensive needs new leadership. Clancy Pendergast, however, is an established defensive coordinator. He coordinated a Super Bowl team, he has led the Pac 12 in defense numerous times, and his teams have turned in some very solid performances. He is a real pro with a real resume. I don’t want to imply otherwise.
Yet I hesitate to call his second stint at USC a success.
What the numbers say:
Let’s start the analysis with some numbers. I’m going to use yards-per-play as the primary metric for purposes of this discussion. Why not total defense or scoring defense? Because both numbers depend on too many other things, such as how many possessions each team has and whether the offense and special teams put the defense into bad situations frequently.
So I want to start by focusing on yards-per-play . Bill Connelly, a well-known football advanced stats guy, had a good article a few years ago about the most important statistics in football. (https://www.footballstudyhall.com/2014/1/24/5337968/college-football-five-factors) One of the stats Connelly promotes is yards-per-play margin (sometimes called yards-per-play differential). It isn’t a perfect metric – no one statistic is – but it’s far better than focusing on total offense or total defense. As Connelly’s charts show, “If you won the per-play yardage battle by even 0.1 yards per play, your odds of winning a game rose from 50% to 55%. If you averaged 0.75 yards per play more than your opponent, you won three-quarters of the time.” Using yards-per-play to measure just the defense, however, is tricky. While it’s easy enough to isolate yards-per-play on just one side of the ball, the two units don’t operate completely independently. As the offense improves its yards-per-play, you would expect the defense to improve, because it will be on the field less, will be in better field position situations, etc. Nonetheless, the numbers are valuable, and it may be the best, easy tool we have.
To show how elite teams stack up on this statistic, here is the current top 10 and their yards per play figures:
Off Def Diff
- Alabama 6 4.3 (3.3)
- Clemson 2 4.0 (3.2)
- Notre Dame 1 4.4 (1.7)
- Oklahoma 6 5.9 (2.7)
- Ohio State 6 5.6 (1.0)
- Georgia 0 5.0 (2.0)
- UCF 1 5.4 (1.7)
- Michigan 0 4.2 (2.2)
- Washington 8 4.6 (1.2)
- Florida 9 5.2 (.7)
- Here are USC’s numbers over the last three years:
2018 5.6 5.2 (.4)
2017 6.4 5.4 (1.0)
2016 6.3 5.2 (1.1)
USC’s defensive YPP figures over the last three years remained relatively steady. They weren’t terrible; the Trojans’ national ranks for the last three years are 44, 54, and 37. But those numbers certainly aren’t great; there is a huge gulf between what the elite programs are doing defensively with numbers in the low 4’s and what Clancy’s defense has done. You can get into the playoffs with numbers like USC’s defensive numbers, but only if your offensive figures are off the charts like Oklahoma’s. (They obviously haven’t been.)
And we cannot dismiss these national ranks by saying that west coast teams can’t succeed on this metric. The Pac 12 may have fewer elite defensive linemen locally, it may have wide-open offenses, it may have a lot of things; but it is possible to play defense in this conference. Compare what USC has done to Washington with national ranks in YPP of 6, 6, and 16 over the same period.
You obviously cannot dismiss turnovers as a key metric – turnovers decide too many football games to ignore them. But they’re difficult to assess. Recovered fumbles are as much luck as skill and preparation. Forced fumbles are a better indicator, and on this front USC’s forced fumbles numbers have fallen for three straight years (from 9 to 8 to 6), and frankly the numbers weren’t very good for any of Clancy’s three years. USC, for example, fumbled the ball 10 times in 2016 and 13 times each of the last two years. So USC’s opponents are consistently causing more fumbles than is USC’s defense. But the sample size is so small and the differences in the figures so small, I’m not sure what we can make of it.
USC’s interception totals were obviously dismal this year – next-to-last in the nation is bad, right? – but they were far better last year, and USC did have a high number of passes defended. Again, I’m not sure whether we can attribute last year’s higher rate of interceptions to better coaching. And it’s worth noting that some of the top teams in turnovers caused are some of the worst teams in the country, like Kansas at number two in the rankings.
So how do we account for things like turnovers? Maybe the best all-around statistical measure is the national S&P rankings, which combine efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing drives, and turnovers – essentially most of the metrics that stat geeks find important. USC finished a reasonable #20 on this ranking in 2016, a dreadful #55 in 2017, and a pretty uninspiring #39 in 2018.
What to make of all this? Statistically USC’s defense has been better than average during Clancy’s second run at USC, but it’s been nowhere near elite, and it’s been far below Pac 12 rivals like Washington. You would not expect that a team with the recruiting pull of USC to have such mediocre overall numbers.
2. How do we explain USC’s performance?
How much of this was Clancy’s fault? That’s a complicated question. The offense certainly did him no favor this past year, but the YPP numbers in 2018 weren’t dramatically different than in previous seasons when the offense was better, so I’m not sure how much weight to give that argument.
He also clearly had some personnel issues this season. He had only one pass rusher, and that pass rusher could never stay healthy. So he had to blitz to get pressure, but he didn’t have enough man defenders to play good, tight, man coverage. So we had a lot of blitz calls with defenders leaving a huge cushion, and this often resulted in easy short passes. Moreover, as Kevin Bruce has discussed in his write ups, USC had to crowd A-gaps with inside linebackers to protect its defensive front, and this type of manufactured pressure is high risk, and teams occasionally capitalized on it (with UCLA being one of them).
Still, I think USC has reason to be disappointed in Clancy’s performance. I see three reasons.
First, even the personnel shortcomings are at least partially Clancy’s responsibility. Clancy has been here for three seasons and three recruiting classes: why does USC have only one (injury-plagued) pass rusher? It has recruited guys upfront that were supposed to have the right skill set. Did the coaching staff misjudge them or fail to develop them? Either way, he bears some blame for the personnel shortcomings.
The same is true on the back end. Why does USC’s secondary struggle so badly in coverage? The Trojans have recruited well in the secondary over the last few years. Is it because all these highly ranked recruits were misses? If so, why did Clancy miss so frequently in his recruiting evaluations?
Simply put, when a program has more recruiting pull than any other program east of Texas – by far – yet it has no pass rushers and few secondary players that can play sound man coverage three years into a defensive coordinator’s tenure, we have a right to ask why the defensive coordinator allowed that to happen.
Second, Clancy’s defenses were far too undisciplined. Kevin Bruce offered some examples in recent posts, and I don’t want to till that same ground. But when secondary players give up big plays over the top in a game where USC is leading by multiple scores, you have a discipline problem. (See Colorado, 2017.) When guys fail to line up properly and you get big running plays because the offense has more blockers than defenders, as happened multiple times this past year, including against UCLA, you have a discipline problem. And when you have foolish penalties by your defenders week-after-week, you have a discipline problem.
How much of this is attributable to Clancy Pendergast is difficult to say, because Clay Helton is ultimately responsible for this lack of discipline on this team, and it’s ultimately a symptom of Clay’s defective culture. But I just don’t think Clancy can be relieved of all responsibility for the lack of discipline with his defense. These are his guys, and Clay is generally hands’ off on that side of the ball. Clancy has the ability to instill discipline in his guys. He hasn’t done it very effectively.
Third, and it’s a related point, Clancy bears at least some blame for the culture of the program, a culture I think is best described as lazy and soft. Does that sound too harsh? Somebody recently mentioned the book “Fourth and Goal Every Day” about the Alabama football program. Go read it. I’m reading it now, and frankly, it makes me sad. The book shows how fundamentally unserious USC football is these days. I’ve scoured the book and I see no reference to Nick Saban giving his players a full month away from pads. I don’t see any indication that Saban’s players have to beg him to practice harder. To the contrary, it is clear that Alabama football is based on rigorous, high-intensity, full-pad practices, with first units against first units, and where players compete as if it’s game day. It is a program where discipline and commitment are demanded, and those who fall short simply don’t play.
It is, of course, Nick Saban who creates that culture at Alabama, and it is Clay Helton who has created a very different culture at USC. But Clancy’s second tenure at USC has been less successful than it should have been because he is part of a regime that shows a half-serious dedication to football. It shouldn’t take seniors to ask Clay Helton to wear pads or practice harder. Clancy Pendergast should have been demanding that. Players shouldn’t have to ask to practice harder. Clancy should have been demanding that his defense practice more physically and tackle more consistently. He should have been demanding that the strength-and-conditioning program prepare his players to compete on Saturdays.
Yes, most of the blame for these failures falls on Clay Helton. But Clancy doesn’t escape unscathed. When a team practices and trains in the off-season like an intramural squad rather than a dedicated and elite college football program, the defensive coordinator bears some of the blame.
My bottom line: Clancy Pendergast is a quality coach who accomplished some impressive things in his career. But it’s hard to feel good about his work the last three years.
Trojan Game of the Past
November 21, 1987
USC v. UCLA
I love Rodney Peete, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I was a freshman in high school when Rodney Peete played his junior year at USC. I was a fan of Rodney’s from the day he took over as the starting QB. But this is the game that made Rodney Peete my hero and a Trojan legend.
UCLA came into the game a heavy favorite. The Bruins were 9-1 and ranked #5. Troy Aikman was the best passing QB in the country. The Bruins had won the conference three of the previous five years. In the cross-town rivalry game the prior year, UCLA running back Gaston Green had … let me check … yep, there it is, 786 yards against USC, and the Bruins absolutely steamrolled the Trojans at the Rose Bowl. (It was 30-0 at the half.)
All of that made this 17-13 Trojan victory a glorious upset, and one of my all-time favorite USC games. What most people remember is Erik Affholter’s juggling catch in the end zone to give USC the winning score. But maybe the key play of the game was the last play of the first half. USC was looking to score, but UCLA’s Eric Turner picked off the pass at the goal line with nobody in front. Keep in mind, Eric Turner was a stud. He became an All-American and was the number two overall pick in the NFL draft when he came out. Peete could have conceded the score and the game. Most quarterbacks probably would have. But Rodney chased him down, caught him from behind, and made the tackle at the USC 11 yard line. If Turner scores, it’s 17-0 Bruins, and the game is effectively over. His tackle kept the door open. It was one of the great hustle plays in USC history.