After two weeks of bending and bending and bending some extra, it appeared solely a matter of time earlier than USC’s discomfiting protection would possibly lastly break, leaving Caleb Williams and their electrifying counterparts to bail out the Trojans on their very own.
The likelihood loomed like a darkish cloud over an impossibly vivid begin to the season for USC, creeping into each dialog concerning the Trojans’ trajectory, a caveat it had but to counter.
These issues crept again into the Coliseum all through USC’s 45-17 victory on Saturday night time, even because the Trojans saved a largely snug lead all through. They rolled in as Fresno State flew up and down the sphere for 421 yards and reverberated as Bulldog working backs burst by way of huge holes within the USC entrance.
However once more, that darkish cloud was whisked away earlier than the Trojans discovered themselves in too dire of straits. This time, nevertheless, it wasn’t simply Williams who whisked USC out of hazard.
This time, USC’s protection wouldn’t want 4 takeaways to do its half.
The Trojans nonetheless added two extra turnovers to their heaping, early-season pile. However their most encouraging moments got here on the most important junctures Saturday, simply as Fresno State threatened to interrupt the sport open.
“Nice models make big-time performs at huge moments,” USC coach Lincoln Riley mentioned. “I might say we’re an excellent protection, and I anticipate it’s going to get higher and higher.”
When Fresno State appeared primed to push its means again within the recreation, a collection of big-time stands from USC’s protection thwarted any hope the Bulldogs had of climbing again.
The primary of these inflection factors got here from rush finish Solomon Byrd, who burst across the edge through the opening possession of the second half. Just some weeks earlier, Byrd was all however buried on USC’s depth chart. Now, he was slamming Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener to the grass for a sack-fumble that might not solely knock Haener out of the sport, however flip the tides for USC’s protection.
“It was vital, completely vital,” USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch mentioned.
Three performs later, the Trojans scored on a 23-yard run from Travis Dye, pushing their result in 18.
From there, USC’s protection allowed only a single rating from a Fresno State offense that got here into Saturday as some of the prolific in school soccer by way of two weeks. It halted one drive with a third-down sack from Brandon Pili and one other from Tuli Tuipulotu. It even added a remaining goal-line stand on the one-yard-line for good measure.
“They don’t get further credit score for explosives or getting down within the purple zone,” Byrd mentioned. “On the finish of the day, we’re all the time three performs from getting off the sphere.”
USC nonetheless usually took too many performs to get off the sphere. However because the Trojans rolled to a 3rd consecutive victory, they might relaxation simple realizing their protection was nowhere near breaking. Not but, no less than.
“That’s form of who we’re at this level. We’re a bend-but-don’t-break protection,” USC linebacker Shane Lee mentioned. “We’ve acquired to determine precisely what we need to be and the way we need to do it going ahead. We have now to enhance in lots of methods, but it surely’s a basis.”
One other robust efficiency from Williams definitely helped lay a sturdy basis. The quarterback completed with 284 yards and two touchdowns by way of the air, whereas including two extra on the bottom. The Trojans additionally boasted two 100-yard rushers, as Travis Dye and Austin Jones rolled over the Fresno entrance, including a landing apiece.
The protection additionally benefited from one other blazing begin, as USC scored touchdowns on every of its first three possessions for the third consecutive week.
Similar to final week — and the week earlier than that — USC marched down the sphere on its opening drive and made an early assertion. Dye acquired the Trojans offense off the bottom, tallying 42 yards together with his first 4 carries. Williams accomplished two tightly coated passes to transform two third-and-longs on USC’s first possession, earlier than discovering Jordan Addison ultimately zone for a three-yard rating, Addison’s fifth in simply 9 quarters for USC.
Williams punctuated the Trojans’ subsequent journey with a landing, faking a handoff earlier than scampering eight yards to offer USC an early 14-point lead and Williams his first speeding rating of the season. He added one other on the subsequent possession, giving USC’s quarterback his first multi-score recreation on the bottom.
However the extra gorgeous early assertion got here on Fresno State’s first drive, as USC’s protection compelled a direct three-and-out, setting a powerful tone it hoped would maintain for the remainder of the night time.
Initially, it lasted all of 1 possession, as Fresno State took simply 5 performs on the subsequent drive to search out its means into the purple zone. It wouldn’t get a lot additional than that, as USC’s protection as soon as once more stood tall with its again towards the top zone, stopping the Bulldogs on three consecutive performs inside the ten to drive a area objective.
The protection wouldn’t fare so nicely on its subsequent strive, as Fresno State flew down the sphere once more, this time discovering the top zone in fewer than 90 seconds.
The message in these unsure moments?
“Simply reply,” linebacker Eric Gentry mentioned. “That’s the largest factor. Simply reply.”
Two performs later, USC discovered itself proper again within the purple zone.
This time, it couldn’t convert, as Williams was scrambling for pricey life within the pocket, earlier than he was sacked outdoors of field-goal vary.
However USC returned to its high-flying offensive methods within the second half whereas its protection made the large performs essential to delay any existential issues about its reliability and consistency for no less than yet one more week.