Weiner: The Fate of the Once-Great Graham Harrell

Posted on December 1, 2021

  By Matt Weiner, SportsPac12

Since hiring Lincoln Riley Sunday afternoon, USC has been in the eye of the media storm.

The discourse has hit every corner imaginable, but one that’s gotten ignored in this whirlwind is the future of OC Graham Harrell. If his job wasn’t hanging on a thread after Saturday’s loss to BYU, it surely is now.

On this go-around, the topics varied from going increasingly run-heavy on the final drive to questioning how exactly he got the mantra of being an air raid guru. Either way, disappointment and urgency filled the crisp Los Angeles night sky.

Jaxson Dart throws while being tackled by BYU LB Ben Bywater | Ashley Landis/AP

A change needs to be made.

As the mushroom cloud of news and reactions about Riley’s hiring begins to disperse, I’m left wondering what Riley’s M.O. will be in this situation.

There is plenty of evidence pointing to why he should get rid of everyone on the staff besides Donte Williams, but Harrell’s job could be saved thanks to some old ties.

The ties go back to the peak of USC’s sovereignty over the world, back when Harrell and Riley were Red Raiders down in Lubbock, Texas on Texas Tech.

From 2004-2008, Harrell was earning All-American honors, setting eight NCAA passing records,  heaving walk off touchdowns against Texas and Riley was drawing up X’s and O’s as a wide receivers coach.

Graham Harrell quarterbacking Texas Tech vs Ole Miss | Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Over a decade and some change later, Riley has a decision to make. Stay loyal to a former capo or cut the ties?

Loyalty means just as little in the college football world as it does in mafia movies, but this time it won’t result in Traveler’s head laying in bed next to Harrel.

It also doesn’t mean that past glory days would be enough to keep Harrell as the OC instead of looking to bring in some real firepower. The only thing that’s clear is Graham Harrell and firepower don’t belong in the same sentence.

Take away the final 35 minutes against Washington State, where USC put up 45 unanswered points, and there is little reason for Harrell not getting axed.

If you were to take a step back and look at the 2021 season, the numbers point to him retaining his job. However, the stats are misleading.

USC leads the Pac-12 in yards per game ( 447.1), total passing yards (3,315), and passing yards per game (301.4), but are all  byproducts of the almighty garbage time.

USC receiver Drake London vs Stanford || Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times

In the first three quarters of their home losses to Stanford, Oregon State, and Utah, they were outscored 98-40. However, in the fourth quarter of those same three games, the Trojans outscored their opponents 41-24.

The final scores look more competitive, but it’s all smoke and mirrors.

It’s like knowing you’re a week away from breaking up with someone so you go out of your way to open car doors, pull out chairs, and buy chocolate and flowers.

So when it’s time to drop the hatch you leave a much rosier image of yourself that’s supposed to wash away all your wrongdoings. A lot of bad and some last-second good won’t cancel each other out.

Garbage time excellence at home was long-forgotten by the Coliseum when USC was driving down the field with 4 minutes left in the game down 35-31. The Cougars four-point lead was imperative to understanding mistakes that Harrell has yet to fix.

They stepped onto the scene in the first two quarters of the season against San Jose State when Parker Lewis nailed two kicks in the red zone. Ten games and seven losses later nothing has changed.

The Trojans rank 17th in the nation in red-zone scores, but it’s mostly due to having the second-most field goals made. They are ranked outside the top 15 in red-zone rushing touchdowns, and they’re out of the top 50 in red-zone passing touchdowns.

Perpetually leaving points on the field put Harrell’s behind in the jackpot, and one last-second touchdown drive against the Cougars could’ve cooled the rumors temporarily.

USC running back Vavae Malepeai vs BYU | John McGillen/USC Athletics

The first nine plays of the drive looked tremendous for the Trojans. They were able to go from their own 30 to the Cougars 19 in 2 minutes and 46 seconds. Harrell’s run heavy attack with Vavae Malepeai leading the way was slicing up the Cougars.

But it eventually, came back to bite him.

Dart was taken out of the equation, and except for one first down scramble, didn’t have any contributions to the drive. When he was forced to throw, the chemistry with his receivers just wasn’t there.

First down, he opened up with a shot to Gary Bryant Jr. in the end zone. A risky play that didn’t need to be called because there was more than a minute on the clock and USC had all three timeouts.

Then came the back-to-back rushes from Malepeai that gained a total of 4 yards, leaving the Coliseum stunned, followed by a fourth-down slant that was short of the sticks and the astonishment turned to the well-known reality.

Harrell wasn’t as advertised.

Graham Harrell in 2019 | Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

His reputation revolved around being the next great air raid guru. Clearly, this was more a result of the crop of guys he got to work with at North Texas University and weaker competition, rather than his own schemes and philosophy.

Running back-to-back plays up the gut on looks that were shown constantly throughout the game and final drive, and then having receivers run routes that would guarantee being short of the first down screams air head and not air raid.

With Lincoln Riley at the helm now, either he retains Harrell and takes complete control of play calling or goes with a new OC.

Either way Harrell will not have the final say in play calling in the red zone because when push comes to shove, points will be left on the field.

—Recent Matt Weiner Stories—

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