Defense and the running game.
Those aren't exactly the two things Lincoln Riley's teams have been known for over the years, but that has been the winning formula for the 2022 USC Trojans (4-0, 2-0).
Look no further than last week against Oregon State when the Trojans picked off four passes and ran for 177 yards to rally for a 17-14 road victory over Oregon State.
USC’s turnover margin this season is plus-14 through four games, the best in the country. In fact, no other team even has double-digit takeaways, and the Trojans are the last team yet to turn the ball over.
Here are a couple of key takeaways from Trojans’ closest game so far this season:
THE RUNNING GAME CARRIED THE OFFENSE ... AGAIN
Behind a lackluster performance from Caleb Williams, who just couldn’t seem to find his groove and hit his receivers, the running game mostly picked up the slack offensively. Williams was just 16-36 (44%) for 180 yards, but Dye had another excellent night, totaling 133 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries, making some of the most important plays of the night for the Trojans.
The poor passing performance from Williams doesn’t seem like a major issue with his play or with the offensive scheme. Early on in the game, he was simply missing throws he’s more than capable of making, which would indicate he either didn’t have his A-game all night, or he didn’t have it to start and that prevented him from getting into a rhythm.
Although he was visibly frustrated throughout the night, there shouldn’t be any doubt he’ll quickly return to his old self. Write this one off as a fluke.
However, there’s no explanation as to why Riley didn’t lean on the run game when throwing the ball wasn’t working. Dye averaged seven yards per carry to Williams’ five yards per attempt, down from his mark of 10.1 over the previous three games.
It would have been interesting to see the Trojans adjust to some heavier personnel packages when the passing game wasn’t clicking. After all, USC never trailed by more than a possession, so the clock wasn’t forcing Riley to lean into throwing the ball. The coach did acknowledge the offense’s deficiencies were in part on his own play calling.
WINNING IN THIS FASHION WAS IMPORTANT FOR USC
There’s a trap that mega-talented teams in college football sometimes fall into. When teams have a quarterback or a running back that’s just so good that he can single-handedly win games, the rest of the team can start to depend on that player to do everything. They can start to believe their performance doesn’t really matter because their superstar is going to carry them either way.
Caleb Williams is that caliber of player for the Trojans, but when he didn’t bring his A-game, it was the rest of the roster, on both sides of the ball, that stepped up and found a way to win. The offensive line allowed the Trojans to move the ball on the ground. The defense got tough when it needed to, and it figured out how to take the ball away.
This was truly a complete team win for USC, even if it was ugly. Now the Trojans have proved to themselves they can win games in different ways, and that an explosive passing attack isn’t this team’s only identity.
Perhaps more importantly, this close of a game may have checked some of the hype surrounding the No. 6 Trojans. A loss to Oregon State likely would have put USC out of playoff contention, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing that the team will be forced to refocus and clean up the mistakes, taking each game one week at a time.
On the bright side, USC’s Week 5 matchup is against Arizona State, a program that’s in shambles after firing its head coach Herm Edwards already this season. This one should be a nice confidence booster ahead of Washington State in Week 6, which will be a strong opponent.