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3 takeaways from USC's win over Fresno State: Trojans' defense has to limit big plays

'We gotta coach better. There’s a theme forming here.' - Alex Grinch

In perhaps the most complete game Lincoln Riley’s USC team has played so far this season, the Trojans put together an impressive 45-17 victory over Fresno State on Saturday.

USC showed its remarkable balance as nine players caught passes from Caleb Williams - but this time, the receivers weren’t the main story.

USC jumped out to a 21-3 lead and kept its foot on the gas, leaning on a running game that produced 233 yards on the ground. Though Fresno State did manage to put together over 400 yards of total offense, the Trojans were never in danger of letting the game get away.

Here are the key takeaways from USC’s Week 3 win over Fresno State:

USC'S DEFENSE HAS TO LIMIT BIG PLAYS

In the first half, Fresno State averaged 7.08 yards per play. Excluding their three largest plays of the half, a 24-yard rush, a 27-yard rush and a 39-yard touchdown pass, the Bulldogs averaged just 4.09 yards per play.

The Trojans also ran 47 plays to Fresno State’s 26 and dominated time of possession by a margin of 11 minutes and 22 seconds, yet the score was still 21-10 at the end of the second quarter.

Given how well the Trojans controlled the game and moved the ball on offense, a wider gap would be expected.

Fresno State’s second drive of the third quarter went five plays for 71 yards, with the fourth and fifth plays accounting for 58 of those yards and a touchdown.

All told, there were seven plays that went at least 24 yards for the Bulldogs.

“We gotta coach better. There’s a theme forming here," said USC Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch. "Some of those plays, they feel like, in the moment, like it’s a trick play. Something we haven’t seen, something an offense either schemes up or something that our rules don’t allow for execution in that moment, and I promise that’s not the case."

Grinch believes the defense will improve and that the ability USC has shown to make timely stops can translate to the rest of the game as well.

“I’ll use an example: We played single gap defense on the goal line; each guy took an individual gap, and all of a sudden they couldn’t get one yard. Now, our guys made a decision in that moment that they were gonna play a certain way, and my argument would be that we can play that way on the 40-yard line,” Grinch said. “So, somewhere there’s a disconnect that there’s decisions being made as to how we’re gonna play based on situational things.”

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THE DEFENSE MADE PLAYS WHEN IT MATTERED

That series Grinch referred to was the most telling sequence of the game, and it started with less than two minutes left in the game on USC’s seven-yard line when Fresno State had first-and-goal. The Bulldogs ran the ball out of shotgun four times in a row, twice from the one-yard line, and the Trojans’ defense held strong.

This was promising to see, as USC’s run defense has been weak at times this season. Riley opened his postgame press conference with a remark about the Trojans’ impressive goal line stand.

“My favorite sequence of the game was that goal-line stop there at the end. That’s what we’re about,” Riley said. “It all matters to us, and if you’re gonna be a champion, it’s gotta all matter. For our guys to get that stop right there at the end to close the game was as meaningful as anything that happened tonight.”

At that point, it wouldn’t have mattered if Fresno State had scored, as the contest was already decided, but those are the moments that prepare you for the goal-line stand you might need in a tight matchup against a top-10 opponent in January.

“That means something. Call it a meaningless score, but it’s only meaningless if you attach that moniker to it,” Grinch said. “It might be a bigger thing than any of us realize.”

THE RUN GAME REALLY OPENED UP

Photos by Jason Goode

Photos by Jason Goode

Travis Dye and Austin Jones both had great nights on the ground, picking up 102 and 93 yards respectively, to go along with a touchdown for each. The highlight of the night was a 25-yard touchdown run by Dye that included five broken tackles.

“I thought the run game was pretty good most of the night. We were steady," said Riley. "I thought the line was really good in the run game. I thought the guys started seeing it pretty well. It’s important; you’ve got to run the ball to win and win consistently and win different ways."

For an offense defined primarily as an air raid, it’s scary to see USC win a game through the rushing attack. The Trojans' offense is just that much more potent when the backs get going, and Caleb Williams was getting it done on the ground as well.

The Trojans’ quarterback was really able to make some things happen with his legs Saturday. He rushed 11 times for 41 yards and two touchdowns, though that wasn’t part of the game plan going in.

“I try not to use my legs, but that is an ability that I have," Williams said. "I want to stand back; I want to deliver. I want to be, as we always say, the best mailman, best delivery man back there in the world. And I just had opportunities that opened up, and the defense was giving it to me, and I just took what they were giving me."

Williams also threw for 235 yards and a touchdown, and the most important takeaway from Saturday night was expressed in the last statement the quarterback made before leaving the press conference: “Three and oh!!”