Red hot Trojans host Fresno State in first night game of the season
The Lincoln Riley era is off to a near-perfect start. The Trojans’ air raid offense proved more than effective against Rice University, blowing out the Owls 66-14 on opening weekend. To follow that up, USC defeated Pac-12 Conference rival Stanford 41-28 last Saturday.
With 107 points in the team’s first two games, it’s no secret that offense is the name of the game for the Trojans. In fact, USC currently leads the entire NCAA Division I in yards per pass attempt (11.77).
Head Coach Lincoln Riley’s squad is now 2-0 and looking to do even more damage.
“Confidence wise, we feel like we are going to win every Saturday,” said sophomore wide receiver Mario Williams. “We go out there and execute, do our jobs, take our coaching and really apply it on Saturdays.”
Placed at No. 7 in the nation by the AP Poll, this week is the highest the cardinal and gold have been ranked since October 2017. Riley is pleased with the results so far but eager to see improvement from his team.
“The positives I think are pretty obvious on all sides. I think the areas we have to get better [are] there’s too many mental mistakes,” Riley said after practice on Tuesday. “Whether it’s lack of focus or a lack of just complete trust in what we’re doing, that’s got to grow.”
Before USC enters College Football Playoff contention, the team will need to thrive in trap games — like the one it will play inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum against Fresno State University on Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
The unranked Bulldogs are 1-1 on the season and are one year removed from a 10-3 campaign — highlighted by a win in the New Mexico Bowl against the University of Texas, El Paso.
Competing in the Mountain West Conference, Fresno State lacks the national exposure that other Power Five conference members might benefit from, but the team’s recent track record reveals the ability to win big games when given the opportunity.
Last season, the Bulldogs defeated No. 13 UCLA and No. 21 San Diego State University on the road and played a one-possession game against No. 11 University of Oregon, losing 24-31.
FSU was victim to a walk-off touchdown last week against Oregon State University. In the 32-35 loss, senior quarterback Jake Haener completed 29 of 45 passes for 360 yards and a touchdown.
Haener is currently working through his third season as a Bulldog since transferring from University of Washington. The 6-foot-1 signal caller enjoyed a career year in 2021, throwing for 4,096 yards, 33 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
“It is as quality of an opponent from a passing game standpoint that I’ve seen in a while,” said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “[Haener] is a quarterback that can not only make the throw but extend plays. We say that he scrambles to throw, not scrambles to run.”
On the ground, the Bulldogs’ premier running back is redshirt senior Jordan Mims, who leads the team with 5 total touchdowns. Mims has 195 rushing yards on 36 attempts this season.
“Not many weaknesses. They’re just good everywhere. The quarterback’s really good, they’ve got some outstanding players,” Riley said when asked about Fresno State’s roster. “They’re very experienced, they know how to win. They obviously have a staff there of guys that are extremely experienced.”
Fresno State has their work cut out for them on defense, as sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams will enter Saturday with some of the most efficient passing numbers in college football. Williams is averaging 12 yards per pass attempt and currently holds the second-best quarterback rating in college football this season with a 96.5 mark.
The crown jewel of the USC offense has already created Heisman Trophy buzz with his 590 passing yards and 6 touchdowns through two games. The University of Oklahoma transfer is top three in the betting odds for the award, behind only Ohio State’s junior quarterback C.J. Stroud and Alabama junior quarterback Bryce Young.
As seen against Rice and Stanford, when Williams starts to click with his receivers, games quickly get out of reach for opponents.
The USC defense will have the opportunity to pressure FSU into issuing its first turnover of the season. The Trojans have intercepted opposing quarterbacks six times this season; totaling four from defensive backs and two from linebackers. Additionally, USC defensive backs have recovered two fumbles this season so far.
If there was a ‘game within the game’ to monitor on Saturday, it would be how the USC secondary fares against a more mature, conservative quarterback like Haener. Draft reports describe the senior as a smart passer who can make the right read, but also knows when to test the defense with a deep ball.
Even if there are half as many tip drills for the USC defense than there were up in Stanford, the secondary will have to stay much more disciplined in coverage if they want to slow the Bulldogs’ offense. Fresno State is known to run a much more horizontal offense, meaning that the team prioritizes high-percentage opportunities in the backfield or in the flat.
If four turnovers to none produced a 13-point margin of victory for USC last week, what will an even or negative turnover ratio look like?
Don’t be surprised if the team with the better ball security walks out of the Coliseum with a win.
“This is a real one,” Grinch said. “There’s no question that they have our attention.”