Trojans disband the Wolf Pack

USC’s defense showed a big improvement in its second outing of the 2023 season.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams hyped up the USC crowd in their game against Nevada this past weekend. The Heisman Trophy winner threw for 319 yards and five touchdowns. (Ethan Thai)

The Trojans beat the University of Nevada, Reno so badly that almost no one was left in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to celebrate their victory at the final whistle.

Early season blowouts against non-conference opposition often feel like empty calories for College Football Playoff contenders, but USC’s performance on both sides of the ball in its 66-14 win against the Wolf Pack should leave fans reassured.

The Trojans had two goals entering this game: Keep playing explosive, efficient offense and don’t be a sieve on defense.

It didn’t take long for them to complete the first objective. Junior quarterback Caleb Williams and company took just four plays to march upfield and secure a 7-0 lead. Williams found freshman wide receiver Zachariah Branch in the endzone — already his third touchdown in cardinal and gold.

Short drives quickly became the norm against Nevada. USC scored eight offensive touchdowns in the game, but only one series lasted longer than five plays. The average length of those eight drives was about 1:59 and four plays.

Given the ease and frequency with which USC scored, it’s not surprising that Williams exited the game early. At the end of the third quarter, redshirt sophomore quarterback Miller Moss replaced the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. He acquitted himself well, particularly with his over-the-middle dart to freshman wide receiver Duce Robinson. The former five-star recruit then broke a tackle and charged into the endzone for a 71-yard score.

As expected, Williams posted a prototypical stat line of 18 for 24 with 319 yards and five touchdowns — plus 42 yards on the ground. Despite his apparent efficiency, Head Coach Lincoln Riley was surprisingly measured in his post-game assessment of Williams.

“He’s improving,” Riley said. “I can’t say I’m disappointed with how he’s played, but he’s got to get better. Everybody wants to look at the score and just write the story … we’ve had a handful of plays in both the games that we both want back that we’ve got to go get and not leave on the table.”

Even if Williams didn’t play as perfectly as Riley had hoped, the presumed No. 1 overall pick still helped USC’s receiving corps shine. Fourteen Trojans caught passes against Nevada, including three running backs and one true tight end in redshirt sophomore Lake McRee.

That number should lead fans to two conclusions: one, that Riley and his staff have a ridiculous stockpile of offensive talent. And two, the coaching staff are still deciding which players will be on the field when the in-conference play starts against Stanford this Saturday. Freshman wide receivers Makai Lemon and Ja’Kobi Lane are highly rated and have impressed in minimal snaps so far. However, one or both of them may have to take redshirt years because there are five or six players above them on the depth chart.

The run defense in particular looked much improved against Nevada. The Wolf Pack’s primary running backs, redshirt junior Sean Dollars and sophomore Ashton Hayes, combined for just 48 yards on the ground and redshirt sophomore starting quarterback Brendon Lewis never broke for a long run in the same way San Jose State’s Chevan Cordeiro did in Week 0.

The Trojans also put Lewis and his eventual replacement, redshirt freshman quarterback AJ Bianco, under considerable pressure. The defensive line combined for four sacks, with redshirt senior inside linebacker Shane Lee adding a fifth. Lee and junior inside linebacker Raesjon Davis both played strong games and stepped up in difficult circumstances.

Senior inside linebacker and team captain Mason Cobb and junior inside linebacker Eric Gentry both did not dress against Nevada, leaving the team thin at the position. To make matters worse, freshman inside linebacker Tackett Curtis was ejected for targeting in the second quarter. In their absence, Lee led the team with 10 tackles and played arguably his best game at the Coliseum so far. Riley said in the press conference that he doesn’t expect Cobb and Gentry to be out long-term.

USC’s secondary still looked dangerously vulnerable to the deep ball. Nevada scored on its first drive of the game after Lewis and redshirt senior wide receiver Spencer Curtis combined to complete a 73-yard play. It was a strange play to concede, given that sophomore cornerback Domani Jackson appeared to be in a position to challenge for the ball. Bianco picked out senior wide receiver Jamaal Bell for a 77-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.

But removing those two plays of more than 70 yards, Nevada posted just 161 air yards and 210 of total offense. Those figures suggest that defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and his staff employed generally appropriate schemes that allowed his players to compete on every snap.

The defense still has a lot to prove, but spirits will be high across the fan base going into Saturday’s game against Stanford. The Cardinal beat Hawaii 37-24 in its season opener, the team’s first game under new Head Coach Troy Taylor. Despite beginning the season with a win, Stanford could be one of the Pac-12’s worst teams in 2023. According to Yahoo Sports, Stanford has the lowest over/under win total of any team, at 2.5, after going 3-9 in its final season under David Shaw.

ESPN Analytics gives the Trojans a 94.3% chance to win as nearly 30-point favorites. Riley emphasized how he wanted to see a full Coliseum against Stanford.

“We need this place rocking next Saturday at 7:30,” Riley said. “This’ll be potentially the last time these schools match up for a long time and there’s a lot of significance to that.”

USC kicks off against Stanford at 7:30 p.m., for what will be the two rivals’ last meeting in the Pac-12. conference.

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