TEMPE, Ariz. — After four games, it seems clear: At this point in the season, USC isn’t playing at the level of some of the Pac-12’s other top contenders.
Sure, the Trojans beat Arizona State 42-28 on Saturday in front of a raucous crowd of 54,166 fans at Sun Devil Stadium. The 14-point victory margin conceals a much closer game for much longer than most people would have expected.
Remember, the Sun Devils were shut out (29-0) by Fresno State last week. They beat Southern Utah by three points in their season opener. They’re just not very good.
Yes, it’s a long season and it’s time for USC to improve, but all of its flaws were on display Saturday night. And those need to be cleaned up before the best and most talented teams on the schedule have a chance to exploit them in troubling ways during the second half of the season.
“Tis the season,” said Lincoln Riley. “How are you going to lead 49-3 at halftime the week before? This is not reality. Challenges keep changing, and you either respond and continue to grow together as a team and improve and win along the way, or you don’t. We won. We did a lot of good things, and we have a lot of things to improve on, and we have to prepare for another tough road next week.
On Saturday, Oregon looked as dominant as it could be when it dismantled Colorado. Washington scored 45 points in the first half and beat Cal. Utah improved to 4-0 and beat a top-25 UCLA team despite the Utes’ starting quarterback Cam Rising not taking a snap this season.
The Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) have an extremely high ceiling, Caleb Williams and an endless array of skill threats, who will give them a chance every game. But the team’s problems were there for all to see.
USC’s defense gave up 28 points to an offense that was all over its third-string quarterback and scored just 24 points against Southern Utah while healthy – not extremely hurt like this week.
The unit that couldn’t face Utah and Tulane to finish last season constantly struggled to bring down Arizona State running back Cam Skattebo, who rushed for 111 yards and a score and caught four passes for 79 yards and a touchdown, and his 52-yard catch and run yards in the fourth quarter highlighted any concerns about USC’s defense early in the season.
Great managed by Cam Skattebo? Absolutely.
A bad tackle? Yes, that too.pic.twitter.com/r7zCFk0ZFX
– Max Olson (@max_olson) September 24, 2023
USC’s defense had some bright spots Saturday night — the pass rush had eight sacks and forced a few turnovers. But if the defense had this much trouble against an undermanned Sun Devils team, what would it be against Notre Dame, Washington or Oregon?
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch entered the season under the microscope, and the heat will only intensify after this latest effort, especially when the same issues from a year ago resurface.
The surprise Saturday was USC’s offense, which put up 42 points but left a lot of meat on the bone. He struggled to complete practices in the red zone. The offensive line had issues in pass protection and Williams had to run more than expected. When the defense made a few stops, the offense struggled to capitalize on those opportunities.
MarShawn Lloyd rushed 14 times for 154 yards, but USC moved away from the run and forced the passing game when it wasn’t clicking.
It was somewhat similar to USC’s first road game last season against Oregon State, when the offense played its worst game of the season. The Trojans were better against the Sun Devils, but false starts, drops (mostly by Mario Williams), inability to maximize chances in the red zone, uncharacteristic struggles on third downs, etc. showed that There was still a lot to clean up. .
With a defense that still has flaws, the offense will need to be at its best against the likes of Washington and Oregon, who boast two of the best offenses in the country and exceptional quarterbacks. The defense will need to better handle the road environment when it plays Notre Dame on Oct. 14 and next week at Colorado, which is currently injured but will still have an electric atmosphere when the Trojans arrive in Boulder.
Williams still finished with 322 passing yards and three touchdowns. Brenden Rice caught seven passes for 133 yards and two scores. There was some good to take away from this game for USC.
But it was far from an impressive victory – it was arguably the ugliest of Riley’s 18 games. The good news for the Trojans is that they didn’t play Washington, Oregon or Utah on Saturday night. However, they will have to face these teams soon enough, and if USC is to accomplish what it set out to achieve before the season – a Pac-12 championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff – it will have to play much better than this that he had planned. it was recorded against Arizona State.
(Top photo by Caleb Williams: Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)