Well, that got interesting. Hard to believe that a 34-7 game with two minutes and 54 seconds left until halftime came down to an onside kick recovery. But that’s exactly how this young 2023 season’s most hyped game ended. It’s an oddly unsettling place the 5-0 Trojans find themselves.
It’s so perplexing that the Colorado Buffaloes student section started chanting “overrated” as USC was kneeling to WIN the game. That might have been the first time in college football history that a losing team declared the winning team to be overrated. If this were a Seinfeld episode, the Trojans would be firmly in the “bizarro world” where this victory had the aftermath of a loss. Here are five takeaways from the Trojans’ “victory.”
USC Trojans Beat Colorado But Show Major Weaknesses In Victory
Buffs Are First Defensive Data Point
If folks are finding that this game against the Buffaloes is being overly scrutinized, given it was just one demonstration over a five-game body of work: you’re right, but it should be that way. The Trojans first four opponents are a collective 3-19 on the season. The first month’s competition has been so dreadful that USC has the worst schedule strength of all 133 FBS teams.
Thus, attempting to obsessively deduce how the Trojans gave up 564 total yards, 32 first downs, and 4.3 yards per rush to a Colorado team that had the nation’s worst running game (1.8 yards per rush) coming in, is entirely valid. The Buffaloes had more yards, rush yards, first downs, and possession time than the Trojans while having a greater third-down conversation percentage (50% to 33%). It was evident CU learned a significant amount from their 36-point loss to Oregon just a week ago. But this was also the Trojans first game against mediocrity, and they were utterly torched en route to 18 more missed tackles.
Marshawn Needs To Close
If we take away the kneel-downs at the end of the game, the Trojans ran 11 plays after taking a 48-21 lead with a little over 17 minutes left in the game. Marshawn Lloyd, who up until that point had 11 carries for 80 yards, including a simply gorgeous 27-yard touchdown on the game’s opening drive where he brilliantly reversed the field with effortless calm, had one carry for two yards.
Lloyd is the Trojans’ most talented running back since Reggie Bush and LenDale White. There simply hasn’t been a back to grace Heritage Hall in the past 18 years with Lloyd’s combination of power, elusiveness, toughness, physicality, and skill.
We know& Caleb Williams is this team’s LeBron James – conducting the offense with seamless flow and complete command while being the focal point upon all strategy is built. But Lloyd has to be this team’s Kobe Bryant – the undisputed closer finishing off games. Having seven pass plays versus only four runs, especially when those runs are split between a fresh Lloyd and the less talented Austin Jones, when up by 20+ points, is not championship football DNA.
Wide Receiver Separation
Lost amidst the Buffaloes frantic comeback was their ability to get consecutive quick stops against the Trojans vaunted offense. The Buffaloes’ secondary looked absolutely overmatched and painfully unprepared in the first half, struggling to deal with the absence of three starters, including superstar Travis Hunter and spark plug Shilo Sanders. But as the game wore on and this unit’s confidence grew, so too did the quality of their coverage on USC’s top two vertical offensive weapons: Brendan Rice and Tahj Washington.
Rice and Washington combined for three wide-open touchdowns as USC built their 27-point lead. But as the Trojans tried to close the game out, neither could get separation when they needed it most. Washington was unable to find daylight on a third and five incomplete pass from the Trojans 43-yard line forcing USC to punt midway through the fourth quarter and the score 48-34.
While Rice couldn’t shake his defender on a second and nine inside slant from the Colorado 17-yard line, a drive that ended in a missed Denis Lynch 38-yard field goal that kept CU’s hopes alive.
Last year, those would have been Jordan Addison separation moments. But there’s a difference when your WR1 is an NFL first-rounder versus a day-three prospect. Rice and Washington have terrific instincts finding busts in zone coverage, but when the games get tougher and the Trojans have to have a first down in man-to-man, the jury is still out if their top playmakers can deliver.
Cobb Bouncing Back
The defensive bright spot for the Trojans on Saturday was unquestionably Mason Cobb, who imposed his will and aggression all over the field with 13 tackles, 11 solo, and two tackles for loss. His ability to galvanize the linebacker room and captain the defense’s second level has tectonic implications for the Men of Troy’s year-end projections.
Shane Lee and Raesjon Davis have been unable to find a rhythm amidst the erratic rotation, Eric Gentry is still finding himself after an injury-plagued last 12 months, while Tackett Curtis seems to struggle versus more athletic backfields. Being able to rely on Cobb as a stalwart security blanket behind the likes of the Trojans’ upfront quartet of Bear Alexander, Jamil Muhammad, Solomon Byrd, and Romello Height, would be the single greatest game-changer as the Trojans embark on their murderer’s row second half schedule.
It’s All On Caleb
Shadeur Sanders finished with a decorated and overwhelming 421 total yards and five total touchdowns. But for Sanders and all other 131 FBS quarterbacks. there is a clear separation in dissecting defenses, poise under pressure, and smoothly stacking offensive plays between Caleb Williams and the rest.
At one point, the reigning Heisman winner had six touchdown passes against six incompletions. His 30-40, 403 passing yards, and those half dozen touchdown passes were one of a handful of such stat lines he’s had over his 19-game Trojan career, but perhaps this is his greatest USC performance given the dueled stage.
Coach Prime talked about how fun it was to watch Williams play and that he’s yet to see a bad game from #13 on film. But it took everything Superman had for the Trojans to pull off a victory against a team that will probably win 6-7 games in 2023.
Both teams had 30 pass completions, one missed field goal, and one interception. Despite the Heisman winner having perhaps his greatest Cardinal & Gold day, the difference in the game was a USC blocked punt in the second quarter where the CU kicker ran right into the Trojan pressure.
No matter how much he wants to convince us otherwise, Williams is still human. If Caleb wasn’t Caleb, the Trojans don’t beat the Buffaloes. And if Caleb isn’t always Caleb, they won’t be so fortunate against five of the remaining seven teams on their schedule. Superman will never ask for help, but that doesn’t mean it’s not needed.