No. 7 USC’s protection bites again in win over Fresno State

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 brilliant begin to the season for USC, creeping into each dialog in regards to the Trojans’ trajectory, a caveat it had but to counter.

These considerations 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 crucial junctures Saturday, simply as Fresno State threatened to interrupt the sport open.

“Great units make big-time plays at big moments,” USC coach Lincoln Riley mentioned. “I would say we’re a very good defense, and I expect it’s going to get better and better.”

When Fresno State appeared primed to push its method again within the recreation, a sequence 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 in the course of the opening possession of the second half. Only a few 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 may not solely knock Haener out of the sport, however flip the tides for USC’s protection.

“It was critical, absolutely critical,” 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 one 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.

Trojans working again Austin Jones breaks away for a 44-yard acquire towards Fresno State. He completed with 110 yards and a landing in 12 carries.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Instances)

“They don’t get extra credit for explosives or getting down in the red zone,” Byrd mentioned. “At the end of the day, we’re always three plays from getting off the field.”

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 understanding their protection was nowhere near breaking. Not but, at the very least.

“That’s kind of who we are at this point. We’re a bend-but-don’t-break defense,” USC linebacker Shane Lee mentioned. “We’ve got to figure out exactly what we want to be and how we want to do it going forward. We have to improve in a lot of ways, but it’s a foundation.”

One other sturdy 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.

Identical 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 in the long run zone for a three-yard rating, Addison’s fifth in simply 9 quarters for USC.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams scores a first-quarter touchdown against Fresno State on Sep. 17, 2022.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams scores on an eight-yard, first-quarter landing run. He rushed for 2 touchdowns and threw for 2 Saturday night time.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Instances)

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 dashing rating of the season. He added one other on the following possession, giving USC’s quarterback his first multi-score recreation on the bottom.

However the extra beautiful 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 following drive to seek out its method into the pink 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 pressure a subject aim.

The protection wouldn’t fare so effectively 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?

“Just respond,” linebacker Eric Gentry mentioned. “That’s the biggest thing. Just respond.”

Two performs later, USC discovered itself proper again within the pink zone.

This time, it couldn’t convert, as Williams was scrambling for expensive 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 considerations about its reliability and consistency for at the very least yet one more week.