Eight forced turnovers on defense. Zero forced turnovers on offense.
Those are the two stats that might stand out the most from USC’s first two games.
Has it been fun to watch? Of course, especially given that three of those eight forced turnovers have come in USC’s red zone.
Is it sustainable? Not at all.
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USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch’s bend-don’t-break game plan can work well enough for the Trojans to be successful. But it shouldn’t be able to bend this far without breaking.
The question likely on every USC fan’s mind is: what will happen when the Trojans inevitably don’t have a positive turnover margin in a game? There’s only one way to find out, and there’s a good chance that could happen on Saturday night against Fresno State.
You’ve probably heard about the legend of Bulldogs quarterback Jake Haener by now (probably from the dramatic comeback he led over UCLA last season at the Rose Bowl). Haener is typically very good at taking care of the ball: no interceptions in two games this season, and seven of his nine picks came in just two games in 2021. He’s also never fumbled in his career, which means he didn’t turn the ball over in nine of Fresno State’s 13 games last season.
The USC defense will not be able to rely on turnovers as it has against Rice and Stanford so far this season. That means it will be tougher for the Trojans to bend without breaking, given Haener’s good decision-making. The Bulldogs did lose 12 fumbles last season, which was 10th-worst in the country, but fumble luck is a little too unpredictable to count on, and Fresno hasn’t lost a fumble yet in 2022.
Regardless of turnovers, though, Grinch is going to have to make some adjustments to improve USC’s run defense. Here are two stats that might alarm you: the Trojans rank 119th in the nation (out of 131 teams) in rushing success rate allowed. Fresno State ranks 7th in rushing success rate. That could be an issue.
Bulldog running backs Jordan Mims and Malik Sherrod are averaging 5.4 and 7.7 yards per carry, respectively. Though Fresno State is definitely a pass-first offense, it could really slow this game down against USC if the run game remains consistent.
Sure, the Bulldogs’ average-at-best defense probably isn’t going to stop the Trojans’ star-studded offense much. Fresno State has experience in the secondary, but just probably not enough talent to stop the Trojan’s elite skill group, which is leading the nation with an average of 8.6 yards per play through two games.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams has already vaulted himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation with a pair of incredibly efficient games, and the USC offensive line looks to be one of the better groups in the Pac-12 as well.
But think back to USC’s +8 turnover margin through two games. That luck could easily swing back against them Saturday. Even two turnovers could be all that Haener and his Bulldogs need to keep this game within a score going into the fourth quarter. And if there’s been one concern about the Trojans’ offense, it’s that the unit has been much less productive in the second half in both games.
Yes, USC was up 17 and 21 points at halftime of those contests, but we don’t know yet how this team will perform in crunch time. This could be especially important given that Haener is known as one of the most clutch quarterbacks in college football right now.
With all that being said, I still think USC should be fine in this non-conference home matchup. The Trojans simply have too many offensive looks, especially in the passing game, for a rather weak Fresno State pass rush and secondary. As I said in last week’s preview (and will probably say every week for the rest of the season), it’s not about whether or not USC will be able to score. The Trojans season will be dictated by their defense, and Saturday’s matchup will be no different.
USC should be able to put up 40 points yet again, but I expect Haener and the Bulldogs’ good backfield combination to test the Trojans more this week. In other words, brace yourself for a good ol’ fashioned Pac-12 After Dark shootout.
The total is a sky-high 72, but even that might not be enough given the endless big-play potential for both sides. Because of the aforementioned turnover luck USC has gotten so far this season, I think Fresno State can stay within the 11-point spread as well, making for a fun Saturday nightcap in Los Angeles.