Takeaways from win over Arizona State

Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams threw and ran his way to four total touchdowns on Saturday. (Patrick Hannan | Daily Trojan)

USC has started the season 5-0 for the first time since 2006.

The Trojans’ record is a testament to the rebuild Head Coach Lincoln Riley and company have done. Much of it was on display against Arizona State University last Saturday — a consistent offense with a balance of running and passing plays plus a tough defense.

Here are the biggest takeaways from USC’s victory last Saturday.

Williams returns to form 

After his worst statistical game this season against Oregon State, the media didn’t hear from sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams the entire week. He wasn’t made available to answer questions about his 16-for-36 performance, but Riley had a clear outlook on Williams’ performance.

“It was just one of those nights… it’s like a pitcher in baseball. Sometimes you don’t have your best stuff,” said Riley early last week.

Well, he was right. Williams returned with a game that’s becoming almost routine for him. He threw for 348 yards and 3 touchdowns on 27-for-37 passing. He was also second in rushing for the Trojans with 44 yards and one rushing touchdown. 

However, he did have his first turnover of the season, an interception near the goal line in the second half. But on the bright side, the turnover seemed like more of a miscommunication than a bad throw. 

The quarterback is also becoming known for turning near sacks into positive plays. Williams was almost brought down for a safety in the first half, but a jump pass turned the play into a first down. 

Williams is still a favorite for the Heisman Trophy  after this week and his importance to the Trojans cannot be understated. 

Penalties pile up for Trojans 

Excessive penalties became a staple of USC during the Clay Helton era. For the most part, the Trojans have cleaned that up this season, but it came back around against Arizona State.

In the four games before this past Saturday, USC’s penalty totals never exceeded 9 — it had 4 against Fresno State, 6 against Rice and Oregon State and 9 against Stanford. 

The Trojans went back to their old ways with 6 in the first half against the Sun Devils and 8  for the game. Penalties fell into a drought most of the second half, but came back to bite USC with 2 pass interference calls on Arizona State’s touchdown drive in the fourth. 

The most costly of them came late in the first half. A long touchdown reception by sophomore wide receiver Mario Williams was negated by a holding penalty by USC. The Trojans punted on that drive and with Arizona State getting the ball after halftime, it put USC’s defense on its heels, which leads me to my next takeaway… 

The defense has an up and down game 

In many ways, the Trojans’ defense was the star of their win against the Beavers. Where the offense struggled to gain steam throughout the night, it was the defense that kept USC alive in the game. The Trojans allowed just 320 yards and forced 4 turnovers, making timely stops to bail out the offense. 

But, it was a different story against the Sun Devils early on. Arizona State scored 17 points in the first half, more than Oregon State did in the entire game the week before. It was a slightly different story in the second half. 

USC forced 3 Sun Devil punts in a row to start the half. The Trojans’ pass rush bothered Arizona State too, with 5 sacks in the second half alone. They didn’t close the game out well though, giving up a touchdown on a bizarre drive to cut the USC lead down to 10 with six minutes left.

The Trojans also forced yet another turnover, their 15th of the season. That side of the ball continues to be a pleasant surprise. 

Offensive line changes 

There was concern surrounding the Trojans’ offensive line coming into the season. 

USC was set on the interior with returning players and redshirt seniors Brett Neilon, Justin Dedich and Andrew Vorhees. But, it was the left tackle position that needed some figuring out and Riley decided to split reps between redshirt senior and Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins and redshirt sophomore Courtland Ford. Haskins got most of the snaps Saturday after Ford was called for a key penalty.

It was more of the same against the Sun Devils, however, a new problem arose — a banged-up Dedich was replaced by redshirt sophomore Gino Quinones as a starter. Quinones did a solid job holding his own, but losing the experienced Dedich for an extended period of time would be a problem. 

After the game, Riley indicated they’d continue to evaluate Dedich, who has been “a little banged up.” Keeping that offensive line healthy is key for the rest of the season.