After two weeks of bending and bending and some more bending, it was only a matter of time before USC’s uncomfortable defense collapsed, leaving Caleb Williams and his electrifying teammates to rescue the Trojans on their own.
The prospect loomed as a dark cloud and an incredibly bright start to the season for USC, creeping into every conversation about Troy’s trajectory, which it has yet to overcome.
The concerns crept back into the Coliseum during USC’s 45-17 victory on Saturday night, even as the Trojans kept a mostly comfortable lead throughout. They rolled in as Fresno State flew up and down the field for 421 yards and repeats as the Bulldog back burst through huge holes in the USC front.
But again, that dark cloud was lifted before the Trojans became too far away. This time, however, it wasn’t just Williams who pulled USC out of danger.
This time, the USC defense wouldn’t need four takeaways to make its own.
The Trojans added two more turnovers to their large, early-season pile. But their most exciting moments came at the most important points Saturday, just as Fresno State threatened to break the game open.
“Big units make big-time plays at big times,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “I would say we’re a very good defense, and I expect it to get better and better.”
Just when it looked like Fresno State was trying to force its way back into the game, a series of big-time stands by the USC defense thwarted any hopes the Bulldogs had of climbing back.
The first of those turnover points came from senior quarterback Solomon Byrd, who exploded around the rim on the opening possession of the second half. Just a few weeks earlier, Byrd had nearly been placed on the USC depth chart. Now, he was slamming Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener to the grass for a sack-fumble that would not only remove Haener from the game, but turn the tide for the USC defense.
“It was critical, absolutely critical,” USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said.
Three plays later, the Trojans scored on a 23-yard run from Travis Dye, pushing their lead to 18.
From there, USC’s defense allowed just one score to a Fresno State offense that entered Saturday as one of the most prolific in college football through two weeks. He ended one drive with a third-down sack by Brandon Pili and another by Tuli Tuipulotu. He even added a final goal line stand at the one yard line for good measure.
“They don’t get extra credit for explosives or going down in the red zone,” Byrd said. “At the end of the day, we’re always through playing from the field.”
USC often took too many plays to get off the field. But as the Trojans managed to get their third straight win, they could have known that their defense wasn’t close to being broken. Not yet, at least.
“That’s the type of person we are at this point. We’re a bend-but-don’t-break defense,” USC linebacker Shane Lee said. “We have to figure out exactly what we want to be and how we want to do it in the future. We have to improve in many ways, but it’s a foundation.”
Another strong performance from Williams certainly helped lay a solid foundation. The quarterback finished with 284 yards and two touchdowns through the air, and adding two more on the ground. The Trojans also boast two 100-yard rushers, as Travis Dye and Austin Jones rolled over the front Fresno, adding apiece touchdown.
The defense also benefited from another great start, as USC scored touchdowns on each of its first three possessions for the third week in a row.
Just like last week – and the week before that – USC marched down the field on its opening drive and made an early statement. Dye got the Trojan offense going from the ground, gaining 42 yards on his first four carries. Williams completed two tightly covered passes to convert two third-and-longs on USC’s first possession, before Jordan found Addison in the end zone for a three-yard score, Addison’s fifth in nine straight quarters for USC.
Williams punished the Trojans’ next drive with a touchdown, faking a handoff before scampering eight yards to give USC an early 14-point lead and Williams’ first rushing score of the season. He added another on the next possession, giving the USC quarterback his first multi-score game on the ground.
But the early statement became even more stunning on Fresno State’s first drive, as USC’s defense forced an immediate three-and-out, setting a strong tone that it hoped would be the rest of the night.
First, it lasted all of one possession, as Fresno State took just five plays on its next drive to force its way into the red zone. It wouldn’t get much further than that, as the USC defense was tall again with its back against the end zone, stopping the Bulldogs on three consecutive plays inside the 10 to force a field goal.
The defense would not be as good on its next attempt, as Fresno State flew down the field again, this time finding the end zone in less than 90 seconds.
The message in those uncertain moments?
“Answer,” linebacker Eric Gentry said. “That’s the biggest thing. Answer.”
Two plays later, USC found itself back in the red zone.
This time, it couldn’t be converted, as Williams fumbled for dear life in the pocket, before being sacked out of field goal range.
But USC returned to its high-flying offensive ways in the second half and its defense made the big plays needed to delay any existential concerns about its reliability and consistency for at least one more week.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.