After two weeks of crouching and bending and stowing even more, it seemed only a matter of time before the frustrated USC defense finally broke, leaving Caleb Williams and their electrified counterparts to rescue the Trojans themselves.
Possibility looms like a dark cloud over an impossibly bright start to the season for USC, creeping into every conversation about the path of Trojans, a warning that remains to be countered.
These fears crept back into the Colosseum throughout the victory of USC 45-17 Saturday night, even as the Trojans kept a fairly comfortable lead the entire time. They rolled as Fresno State flew up and down the field for 421 yards and reverberated as the appearance of a Bulldog running through huge holes in the USC front exploded.
But once again, that black cloud faded away before the Trojans found themselves in dire straits. But this time around, it wasn’t just Williams who took USC out of danger.
This time around, USC’s defense won’t need four ways to do its part.
The Trojans still add two more twists to the early season pile. But their most heartening moment came at their most awkward stage on Saturday, just as Fresno State threatened to open the game’s door.
“Great units play a big role in the big moments,” said USC coach Lincoln Riley. “I would say we are in a very good defense, and I expect it to get even better.”
When Fresno State looked ready to get back in the game, a series of big guns from the USC defense frustrated any hope the Bulldogs had of going up again.
The first cornering points came from the end of the rush by Solomon Bird, who exploded around the edge during the opening possession of the second half. Just a few weeks ago, Baird was buried on USC’s depth chart. Now, Fresno State’s team was slamming Jake Hainer on the lawn for a touchdown that not only knocked Hainer out of the game but would turn the tide for the USC defense.
“She was very decisive and decisive,” said Alex Grinch, USC defense coordinator.
Three plays later, he scored the Trojans 23 yards off Travis Day, and pushed their lead to 18.
From there, the USC defense allowed just one goal from the Fresno State attack that came on Saturday as one of the most prolific teams in college football in two weeks. One stops driving with a third bag down from Brandon Bailey and another from Tulipoloto. She even added a goal-line end stop at one yard line for good measure.
“They don’t get extra credit for explosives or getting down in the red,” Baird said. “At the end of the day, we always have three plays from going off the field.”
USC still takes a lot of plays out of the field. But with the Trojans achieving their third win in a row, they could take comfort in the knowledge that their defense wasn’t even close to collapsing. Not yet at least.
“That’s kind of who we are at this point. We’re a curved defense but don’t break,” said Shen Li, a USC quarterback. “We have to know 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 in the air, while adding two more on the ground. The Trojans also bragged about two 100-yard races, with Travis Day and Austin Jones blasting over the Fresno front, adding touchdowns to each.
The defense also benefited from another great start, with USC scoring touchdowns on each of its top three possessions for the third week in a row.
Just like last week — and the week before — USC marched into the field for its opening campaign and made an early statement. Day got the Trojans attack off the ground, hitting 42 yards with his first four campaigns. Williams completed two tightly covered passes to convert two third and long passes in USC’s first possession, before finding Jordan Addison in the end zone by three yards, Edison’s fifth in just nine quarters for USC.
Williams punctuated Troy’s next run with a touchdown, pretending to deliver before rushing eight yards to give USC an early lead by 14 points and Williams his first quick result of the season. He added another on the following possession, giving the USC quarterback his first multi-grade game on the floor.
But the most dramatic early statement came in Fresno State’s first drive, forcing the USC’s defense immediately three times, to set a strong tone that it hoped would last for the rest of the night.
Initially, every single possession lasted, with Fresno State taking only five plays on the next drive to find its way into the red. He wouldn’t go further, as USC’s defense once again stood tall with its back against the end zone, stopping the Bulldogs in three consecutive plays inside the 10 to force a field goal.
The defense wouldn’t go well on its next attempt, as Fresno State circled the field again, this time finding the end zone in under 90 seconds.
The message in those mysterious moments?
“Just hit back,” said linebacker Eric Gentry. “This is the most important thing. Just reply.”
Two plays later, USC found itself in the red.
This time, he couldn’t convert, as Williams was scrambling for dear life in the pocket, before being sacked out of range.
But USC returned to its high attacking ways in the second half while its defense made big plays necessary to delay any existential concerns about its reliability and consistency for at least another week.
This story originally appeared Los Angeles Times.