LOS ANGELES — Caleb Williams and friends carved up Nevada on Saturday like a hungry man attacking a pot roast. Six passing touchdowns! Some 668 total yards! And 66 points!
All game, every game, it’s all exclamation points for the Trojans’ Heisman Trophy winner, who completed 18 of 24 attempts for 319 yards and five of those TDs before giving way to backup Miller Moss during the second drive of the second half.
But the Trojans’ defense? That’s been a Traveler-sized question mark: Can USC’s defense hold up its end of the bargain?
We don’t know!
Because as much as Williams’ presence puts USC in the national title conversation, his team isn’t a serious contender without a serious defense. And our first look at what was supposed to be an upgraded unit last week gave us same ol’ vibes more than new-and-improved.
Saturday was different. No. 6 USC dominated Nevada on both sides of the ball (!) in a 66-14 blowout victory that bumps the Trojans to 2-0 entering their first game of their final season of Pac-12 play. They will play Stanford — perhaps for the last time “in a long time,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said — next Saturday at the Coliseum.
Facing Nevada for the first time since 1929, USC gave up 360 total yards – and 150 of those came on two passing plays. Otherwise, the Trojans held Nevada to just two touchdowns, bookends in a blowout, and forced them to go three-and-out six times.
It was telling effort even against an overmatched opponent like the Wolf Pack, which finished last season with the 122nd-ranked offense in the nation, having averaged just 304.7 yards per game.
And it was a better showing than the Trojans’ effort in their 56-28 season-opening win last week against San Jose State, when the Spartans capitalized on coverage busts and a leaky pass defense, odd play calls and a mediocre pass rush for 396 yards.
Although the Wolf Pack stunned their hosts by landing a four-play touchdown punch on their first drive to tie the game temporarily, the 7-7 mirror yielded no further smoke. After that, USC cracked down and didn’t allow Nevada back on the board again until AJ Bianco’s 77-yard TD pass to Jamaal Bell with 11:18 to go in the fourth quarter. By then, USC led 52-14.
“Came and punched us in the mouth,” junior safety Jaylin Smith said. “I mean, teams are going to do that. For us, going through the season, you gotta learn to respond.”
And these Trojans defenders responded by stumping and stuffing and stymying their opponent like an elite team should.
Shane Lee seemed to swallow Nevada players whole, finishing with a game-high 10 tackles – five of them solo and one for a 13-yard loss. Smith finished with six tackles and Domani Jackson had five, as did Calen Bullock – who came soaring to break up a pass attempt along the sideline, wisely batting it away instead of pulling it in and giving the Trojans’ offense 25 yards better field position.
The exclamation point: Stanley Ta’ufo’ou’s 23-yard fumble return in the fourth quarter!
Of course, this all came against an overmatched opponent playing its first game. And the Trojans had the benefit of having played in Week 0 – and they have continuity on the sideline, with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, embattled though he might be, calling the shots.
But USC didn’t have three of its best linebackers. Mason Cobb and Eric Gentry were in warmups, out with undisclosed injuries that head coach Lincoln Riley downplayed postgame. And freshman Tackett Curtis was ejected for targeting in the second quarter.
Add to that Christian Rolland-Wallace’s first-half suspension, handed down this week by the Pac-12 Conference for his apparent role – which Riley disputed Saturday – in an incident between his former Arizona Wildcats team and Arizona State in last season’s Territorial Bowl.
And still, USC effectively suffocated the Wildcats’ attack, snuffed out hope early and gave Grinch’s group something positive to build on.
“Guys stepped up. Communicated. The run defense was really stout all night,” said Riley, with a nod to Nevada’s modest 98 yards on the ground. “Really only gave up two fade balls – you don’t discount those, like those can’t happen and have to get better – but other than that, we played pretty clean.”
So they cleared this bar, but there are taller tests to come.
Fortunately for thing for the Trojans, their best defense might still be their stellar offense, with Williams punctuating six of the nine drives he led with touchdowns, applying pressure evenly and for the entirety of the game, forcing opposing offenses to score and score often to keep up.
If Saturday was an indication, that might really be tougher to do this year.
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