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Tale of the tape: Former USC quarterback Max Browne understands Trojans' struggles on offense

Former USC quarterback Max Browne, who is now a college football analyst, talks about the Trojan's struggles on offense.

Max Browne’s film room now exists in the den of a Hermosa Beach bachelor pad. The former USC quarterback is bunking up here with a friend as he surveys the landscape of his post-college life, and his hope is to find a way to stay in the game.

Browne still loves football, even though it has not loved him back these last years, breaking his heart time and time again.

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“I hate being negative,” Browne says, “but it was a nightmare.”

He leans his long frame over a laptop resting on the coffee table, clicking through play after play of another quarterback’s ongoing bad dream. Browne wants to help explain what is happening with JT Daniels and the confounding 2018 USC offense, and, as any Trojan can tell you, there are too many bad plays from which to pick.

Browne's goal is to play football professionally next season — he is recovering from a torn labrum he sustained last year as a graduate transfer at Pittsburgh — but he’s learned enough to prepare himself for the alternative. He wants to be a TV color commentator, and he’s spent this fall trying to prove himself capable with a weekly analysis of Pac-12 football on YouTube.

Browne starts this tape dissection with Daniels in the run-pass option or RPO game. The RPO is a young football concept that USC uses a handful of times per game. It is a called run play that gives the quarterback the option of reading one player on the defense, usually a linebacker, and pulling the ball from the running back’s belly and instead throwing a pass. If the linebacker goes with the running action, you throw it to the side of the field he just vacated. If the linebacker doesn’t flow with the run, you leave the ball with the running back for the play as originally called.

Browne pulls up one of the crucial mistakes Daniels made in USC’s loss to California on Nov. 10. The Trojans, leading 14-9 but stumbling out of halftime, faced a second-and-18 situation. Clay Helton called for an RPO with Vavae Malepeai running to the right. Daniels kept the ball. He had two receivers out to his left, each seemingly facing soft coverage. Daniels elected to throw the ball to the inside receiver, but what he didn’t see in time was that Cal cornerback Traveon Beck had broken toward the ball for what would be a back-breaking interception.

“He didn’t necessarily make the wrong decision to pull it,” Browne says. “If you’re coaching this, you’re saying, ‘Go outside, this coverage is a lot tighter than that coverage.’ I like the outside throw a lot better than the inside throw.”

In reviewing the play, it also seems Malepeai could have had a big gain if Daniels had handed it off. Of course, it was second-and-forever, so Browne gets why Daniels kept it. He simply chose the tougher of two throws and paid for it.

Browne shows several other RPOs that did not work against Cal. A couple of passes failed because of missed blocks by freshman wide receivers on the outside. On another, Daniels made the correct decision to keep the ball and throw it to the outside receiver on a slant, but the ball was batted down at the line.

Max Browne warms up for a USC practice
Max Browne warms up for a USC practice (Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

For comparison’s sake, Browne pulls up a play from the 2017 Cal game with Sam Darnold at quarterback. It’s essentially the same design, but Darnold completes the slant to Deontay Burnett for a first down.

There is no clear reason to Browne why one play worked and not the other, but he senses a bigger difference between 2017 and 2018 than can be understood in one play.

“When Darnold was behind center, you get the feeling SC was always in attack mode, really putting pressure on the defense,” Browne says. “There’s a lot more cushion in 2017 than there is in 2018. The defense might be scared, therefore you get easier throws like this because of the output of the offense. In 2018, you’ve got defensive backs attacking the ball. They’re not fearing the offense.”

Browne and Daniels share a lot in common. They both were the Gatorade National Player of the Year, coming to USC with the hype of being the next great Trojans quarterback.

Instead of taking over for Matt Barkley, Browne sat behind Cody Kessler for three years, waiting his turn. Entering his redshirt junior year, Browne entered a heated quarterback competition with Darnold, then a redshirt freshman, and won the job. His reward? A matchup with Alabama, which pummeled USC 52-6. After USC lost to Stanford two weeks later, Helton pulled the plug on Browne and inserted Darnold. The rest is Trojans lore.

On the other side of that history sits Browne, who waited three years to start three games. Last year at Pitt, he won the job out of fall camp, only to be benched once again after three games. Later, he took the job back but tore the labrum in his right throwing shoulder.

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“I played a lot of good ball,” Browne says. “There is a reason I was able to win competition battles out of Pitt, out of USC. You don’t just do that by showing up and doing whatever.

“There’s that feeling of, man, I didn’t get the true opportunity. I think that kind of still lives inside me.”

Browne can relate to Daniels, who is finding out what it is like to compete with Darnold too, albeit not directly. Everything Daniels does is shadowed by the legend of Sam.

Last week, on the Wednesday after USC’s loss to Cal, Browne was invited by a USC academic advisor to come back to campus and speak to the Trojans’ freshman class. He got to meet Daniels, and the two talked about the USC quarterback experience.

“Every day he’s talking to people who give him advice, but they never actually lived it,” Browne says. “Is JT playing lights out? No, but for a true freshman at USC, he’s playing solid, and I think a lot of the criticism on him is unfair. We talked about that. It’s hard, but it’s part of the deal. You know that when you sign up to go to USC, but I think it’s different when you say that as a 17-year-old, naive kid versus actually living through it.”

If the game Saturday against Notre Dame is Helton’s last as USC’s head coach, many will point to the difference in his record with Darnold as his starter versus with Browne and Daniels as the reason. With Darnold, USC went 20-4. With Browne, Daniels and Jack Sears (against Arizona State this season), the Trojans have gone 6-8.

Browne diagnoses USC’s issues this year thusly:

There are certain mistakes that one expects from a freshman quarterback, and Daniels is definitely making them, which has probably come as a surprise because of his pedigree and reputation as a finished product coming out of Santa Ana Mater Dei. Penalties are killing the Trojans and stalling momentum on drives. Snapping issues have been a constant annoyance. There are problems in pass protection that Daniels can’t overcome like Darnold could. And the fact that USC can’t run the ball consistently has taken away the effectiveness of RPOs and play-action passing, because defenses do not have to respect the run.

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Entering this season, Browne imagined a sensible formula for USC winning games, and he never saw the Trojans approach it.

“If you had asked me what the mold was going to be,” Browne says, “OK, you have three great running backs. They’re going to run the ball, rely on their veteran defense and win games, like, 24-21. That really hasn’t been the case. They’ve really put the ball in JT’s hands and said, ‘Go win this on offense.’ When you do that to a true freshman quarterback, there’s a downside to that.”

Browne has a knack for breaking down the game in terms the average observer can absorb. And he will always carry with him a personal perspective on USC quarterbacks.

Near the end of this analysis, he pulls up a play from last year’s UCLA game to show one final time what USC is missing this year. Darnold is pressured and flushed out of the pocket. The play looks dead, but Darnold throws across his body to Tyler Vaughns for a long gain.

Looking back, Browne remains in awe of the guy who turned his football dream into a nightmare.

“That’s why that kid’s getting paid millions of dollars,” Browne says.

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