Football triumphs on homecoming night

Football have earned two consecutive victories after suffering their first season loss against Utah. (Brooks Taylor | Daily Trojan).

USC kept UC Berkeley at a distance long enough Saturday to earn a 41-35 victory on Homecoming weekend. But on a night that dipped low into the 50’s, at times the Trojans looked cold on all three sides of the ball.

“We didn’t play our best, really any of the sides,” said Head Coach Lincoln Riley. “Didn’t have a very good half offensively, did not finish the game well defensively, made some big special teams plays but also gave up a few … so obviously a lot to improve on.”

Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams powered the offense to a touchdown in the first quarter, completing 6 of his 7 passing attempts before rushing for a 1-yard score. However, the Trojans punted on their other two first quarter drives and struggled to convert on third down, finishing 5-12 on third downs compared to their 54.74% third down conversion rate that ranks third in the nation. 

Williams again flashed his elite talent and athleticism, throwing for 360 yards and 4 touchdowns, often scrambling to extend plays and give his receivers time to get open.

Redshirt junior wide receiver Tahj Washington and sophomore wide receiver Michael Jackson III both surpassed 100 receiving yards and scored a combined three touchdowns in the absence of sophomore wide receiver Mario Williams and junior wide receiver Jordan Addison, who both missed the game with injuries.

“[Washington and Jackson III] are two really competitive players, two guys that have made an impact not only on offense but on special teams,” Riley said. “Right at the beginning when we started them, they weren’t necessarily at the top of the depth chart or guys that were getting a lot of opportunities and they’ve hung in there and they’ve continued to work, continued to improve.”

While the offense had a slow start, the defense had a rough finish. A banged-up defensive unit missing sophomore linebacker Eric Gentry and senior linebacker Ralen Goforth allowed the Bears to score on four of their final five drives — erasing a double-digit lead USC had sustained from the end of the first half until the middle of the fourth quarter. 

“We’ve got to make sure that we’re putting the guys in the best situation to be successful,” said defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “We can be excited about a win and pissed off [with] how we played.” 

The defense had an interception and 3 sacks, including two from junior defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu who now leads the nation in sacks this season. However, the unit also allowed senior quarterback Jack Plummer to throw for over 400 yards for only the second time in his career. 

“We know we just got to get back to work in practice and we’ll figure it out,” said redshirt senior defensive back Mekhi Blackmon on the Trojans’ spotty secondary.

As has been a problem all season, the Trojans allowed several big plays. A 58-yard pass to junior wide receiver Jeremiah Hunter set up an easy touchdown for the Bears. A wide-open redshirt freshman wide receiver Mavin Anderson took a 47-yard house call after being seemingly forgotten by the Trojan secondary. Missed tackles also continued to plague the Trojan secondary.

A recovered onside kick early in the fourth quarter put even more pressure on the Trojans, who were playing in a Coliseum filled with the ghosts of fans who had already left thinking USC had secured the victory.

The special teams unit also made a blunder on their first extra point attempt, with redshirt senior long snapper Jac Cassante delivering a high snap that was almost returned for what would have been a Cal two-point score.

“We had a tough snap, and Jac’s been money for us all year,” Riley said. “Those are going to happen and honestly our guys did a hell of a job getting them on the ground even after the lateral.” 

One takeaway from the Trojans’ win was the explosiveness of Jackson III. The receiver had 115 yards on just 5 catches, adding a 19-yard rush. Jackson opened up the second half with a 59-yard touchdown grab, catching a slant route and speeding by would-be tacklers on his way to the end zone.

While injuries continue to plague the Trojans, tonight they showed that, if anything, they are built to win football games. With three games remaining in the season, USC has a path to the Pac-12 Championship and perhaps, with a good bit of help, their first trip to the College Football Playoff. 

The Trojans will have a short week of practice ahead of their 6:30 p.m. matchup against Colorado on Friday.