USC and UCLA turn to bread-and-butter pass plays when they really need yards. The Trojans’ signature play in recent seasons is a simple one -- the quick hitch, in which a wide receiver takes a jab step forward and then a few steps back to grab the ball. As for the Bruins, they have been effective dumping the ball off to a running back coming out of the backfield when their other receivers are covered. Times staff writer Lonnie White breaks down the plays:
USC’s Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith are among the best big-play receivers in college football, but the average yards they gain per catch is nothing special. Smith leads the team at 15.7 yards per reception; Jarrett averages 13.5.
UCLA has three players who have better per-catch numbers than Jarrett.
The main reason for Jarrett and Smith’s pedestrian averages can be tied to the Trojans’ reliance on short, quick passes to take advantage of defenses that lag off receivers.
The Trojans run the hitch from several formations, but the basics remain the same.
Quarterback John David Booty takes the snap, turns, and immediately fires the ball to Jarrett or Smith and they try to make the first tackler miss and go for a big gain.
This could be a productive play against UCLA because the Bruins at times have had problems making open-field tackles. Cornerbacks Trey Brown, Rodney Van and Alterraun Verner need to be on top of their game.
UCLA’s secondary can help itself by anticipating the hitch play before it’s run. The Trojans sometimes throw the ball outside to a receiver without any blocking, but often they line up either Patrick Turner or Chris McFoy inside Jarrett or Smith and ask him to help clear a path.
McFoy is an above-average blocker and should be watched closely by UCLA safeties Chris Horton and Dennis Keyes, who need to take proper angles in order to prevent the Trojans from turning a simple play into a big gain.
After not throwing many deep passes early in the season, UCLA’s offense has opened up in recent games with sophomore Patrick Cowan at quarterback. This has helped the Bruins’ short passing game, which features running back Chris Markey.
Markey leads the Bruins with 32 receptions -- 23 since Cowan stepped in after Ben Olson was injured. In recent weeks, UCLA has improved in stretching the field, with mid-range to long throws going to wide receivers Marcus Everett and Brandon Breazell.
With defenses no longer able to crowd the line of scrimmage, Cowan has turned to Markey, who has at least three receptions in five of the last six games, and other Bruins backs. In UCLA’s 24-12 victory over Arizona State on Nov. 18, seven of Cowan’s 14 completions went to either Markey or fullback Michael Pitre.
Final call: The play of USC linebackers Rey Maualuga, Oscar Lua, Dallas Sartz and Keith Rivers will determine the effectiveness of UCLA’s short passing game. If they take deep drops, UCLA will try to complete passes in front of them.
Whether USC’s hitch play works comes down to this: Will UCLA corners make sure tackles, or will outside linebackers Reggie Carter, John Hale or Aaron Whittington be quick enough to get there first?
If so, the Trojans will have to turn somewhere else -- as they did last week when Notre Dame took that favorite play away.