USC has plenty of reasons to start getting a little arrogant.
A 3-0 start with every win coming by double-digits. Sixth in the nation with 50.7 points per game. No turnovers on offense, and 10 forced turnovers on defense (both of which ranked top-5 in FBS entering the week). A Heisman frontrunner in Caleb Williams, a defending Biletnikoff winner in Jordan Addison that could repeat, and plenty of others standing out in their individual positions.
And that’s just on the field. That doesn’t include the increasing hype for the team from the media. The swagger that comes with the NIL deals that are flowing in for Williams, Addison, and everyone else on the team — every player was gifted an electric scooter this week. The palpable sense of excitement on campus because of the team’s early success and potential. And the new, bright lights of Los Angeles that USC’s huge transfer class is experiencing for perhaps the first time.
Despite all of this, there’s a very noticeable sense of humility and commitment around the program, at practice, and at games. The team knows that it has a long way to go; the season is just a quarter of the way completed. The group’s dedication to continuing to improve is clear in the demeanor of players and coaches.
Williams is just a sophomore and in his first year with the team, but it’s clear that he’s already a capable leader for USC. Even though the Trojans have shown they’re already an elite college football offense, Williams exemplifies that devoted attitude towards maintaining progress.
“Throughout our past three games, we’ve had times when we’ve stalled,” Williams said after Wednesday’s practice. “That’s teaching us that we got to be more consistent, got to worry about the details.”
Last week’s game against Fresno State was probably USC’s most impressive offensive performance yet for a couple of reasons. First, the Trojans kept their foot on the gas pedal in the second half, scoring on every drive other than a kneel to end the game. After Stanford, Lincoln Riley was clear that he wanted USC to remain aggressive later in games, even with big leads. His team heard the message, playing a much more full 60 minutes on Saturday on both sides of the ball in its route of the Bulldogs.
Second, Williams and the offense showed an ability to grind out long drives against Fresno State. The Trojans created big plays at will against Rice and Stanford, but their third opponent was able to limit those explosive gains. Williams learned to take what was there as the game progressed, improving from a rather inefficient first half by exploiting the Bulldogs underneath later in the contest.
“Having those long drives, it helps us build a lot of confidence,” Williams said. “Consistency, [trust], focus — those are the biggest things for us.”
USC had touchdown drives of 12, 12, 15, and 10 plays against Fresno State. By comparison, the Trojans had one scoring drive of 10+ plays in their first two games. That more methodical game plan will likely need to be replicated this week against Oregon State, who is also expected to slow the game tempo and limit each team’s number of possessions.
“I’m fine with throwing [underneath],” Williams said. “I’m not looking for the deep ball. I’m looking for us to stay on the field as long as possible.”
USC vs Oregon State
After hearing all that, don’t expect another huge Addison game against the Beavers. Instead, watch out for the USC running backs to have big roles again, and perhaps some different faces at pass catcher, like Tahj Washington or Malcolm Epps.
On the defensive side, the Trojans will really have to focus on stopping the run against an efficient Oregon State ground game crafted by head coach Jonathan Smith. Remember last season, when the Beavers ran for 322 yards against USC? Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch wasn’t with the Trojans for that game, but he probably doesn’t want that same story to play out two years in a row.
“[Smith] has done it for a long time, and he believes in what he does,” Grinch said. “They play fast, they play hard, they play physical… They’re a bit of a different animal out there.”
USC will be thankful that B.J. Baylor, who had 158 of those rushing yards last season, is now in the NFL, but Oregon State running back Deshaun Fenwick and quarterback Chance Nolan also torched the Trojans that day. Both will be prominently featured, though the Beavers are missing a couple of big offensive pieces in running back Trey Lowe and tight end Luke Musgrave due to injury.
Nevertheless, the USC defense knows it has its work cut out for them, especially with the dual-threat Nolan. But the group is also excited about the challenge.
“He puts the ball in good spots for his receivers, where [they’re] the only people that can get it,” USC cornerback Ceyair Wright said. “We have to stay on our stuff, and make sure we’re competitive out there.”
It will start with USC’s run defense on Saturday, though. Oregon State can run the ball a lot of different ways, including through Jack Colletto, the Beavers’ version of Taysom Hill. The Trojans will have to hope they can avoid crowding the box too much, but Grinch might not have a choice if his defensive line can’t hold up Saturday. USC already lost an important piece on their front — edge rusher Romello Height — for the season. So, players like Solomon Byrd, who Grinch praised for his growth after Wednesday’s practice, will need to step up in his place.
We’ve been saying it every week, but Saturday should be USC’s biggest test so far yet again. Oregon State is more well-equipped to slow down the Trojans’ than their previous opponents, but the Beavers’ absences could limit their offensive ceiling, which they need every bit of.
In the end, I think Williams and the USC offense are simply too multidimensional for Oregon State to keep up with. Even if the Trojans are limited in their possessions, the Beaver defense hasn’t impressed me enough for me to believe it will hold USC to under 40 points. After all, if Montana State can score 28 points against Oregon State, something tells me the Trojans shouldn’t have major issues either.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Beavers keep this game moderately close for a while, but I think USC will still cover the game’s 6-point spread on the road. As I mentioned in the opening, the Trojans aren’t focused on anything other than going 1-0 each week, and that outcome shouldn’t change here in Week 4.