USC beats Stanford: Instant reaction on improving defense, electric first half

LOS ANGELES — Lincoln Riley has been USC’s head coach for 17 games. In that span, the Trojans haven’t played a more impressive half of football than they did in the first half against Stanford on Saturday night.

Sixth-ranked USC sprinted out to a 46-point halftime lead and cruised to a 56-10 victory over the Cardinal to move to 3-0 as it enters a bye week. Here are three takeaways and what’s next after the Trojans’ latest win.

1. The defensive performance was …. encouraging?

USC’s defense catches a lot of flak and understandably so. It’s been largely underwhelming for the past season and change. On Saturday, the Trojans’ defense played their best game under Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

Max Williams set the tone with an interception on the first defensive series of the game. But Bear Alexander applied the pressure on Cardinal quarterback Ashton Daniels to force the errant throw.

The defensive front was what popped out the most on Saturday night. The Trojans constantly harassed Stanford’s quarterbacks. Solomon Byrd and Jamil Muhammad each recorded first-half sacks, which continued their strong starts to the season. Muhammad also forced a fumble, which was recovered by Tackett Curtis.

Curtis and Raesjon Davis started at linebacker. There were a lot of questions about how USC would match up with Stanford tight end Benjamin Yurosek, who caught nine passes for 138 yards against Hawaii.

The Trojans had major issues covering talented tight ends last season but Davis made a nice third-down stop on Yurosek early in the game and it was clear from there how much of an emphasis stopping Yurosek was.

Yurosek caught one pass for six yards in the first half for his only reception of the game.

The Cardinal did find some success running to the boundary of the field in the second quarter but the game was already well into blowout territory at that point. The rushing numbers for the defense won’t look good because of that and a 59-yard run from Casey Filkins in the third quarter but this was a defensive performance USC and its fans should feel good about.

Could Stanford turn out to be really bad? Absolutely. But USC didn’t look good against some bad offenses last season, like Stanford and Cal.

It would be too much to expect this from the Trojans’ defense week in and week out, but it was a positive sign nonetheless.

2. Caleb Williams wows again

Earlier in the week, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner didn’t want to talk about comments his father, Carl, made about Williams potentially bypassing the NFL Draft next year and returning to USC.

Williams said his focus was on Stanford and that he didn’t want to let his teammates down. He only played a half on Saturday and he sure didn’t let them down. Williams completed 19 of his 22 passes for 300 yards and three touchdowns while rushing for a 21-yard touchdown to open the scoring.

On that 21-yard run, Williams took an open running lane, ran up the sideline and had the strength to run through a Stanford defender on his way to the end zone.

On a second-quarter TD pass to Dorian Singer, Williams displayed his ability to extend plays and his pinpoint accuracy.

A few minutes later he showed off his arm strength with a 75-yard scoring bomb to Brenden Rice.

Through three games, Williams has passed for 897 yards, 12 touchdowns with no interceptions. Though his father made those comments about potentially returning to USC in 2024, it’s still difficult to find anyone who believes Williams would actually come back next season.

Enjoy him while you still can, USC fans.

3. The Zachariah Branch show continues

In Week 0, it was Zachariah Branch’s 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that electrified the Coliseum crowd. In Week 1, he caught a 22-yard touchdown pass.

In Week 2, it was a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown that sent USC’s fans into a tizzy.

There was a flag on the play which caused the Coliseum crowd to boo loudly until the refs announced it was a penalty on Stanford and the touchdown would stand. Branch has quickly (and understandably) become a fan favorite three games into his collegiate career.

USC simply hasn’t had a player as dynamic and electric as Branch in a few years. It just seems like he’s a threat to score every time he touches the ball.

Through three games, Branch has four touchdowns. He’s posted 402 total yards on just 20 touches this season — good for 20.1 yards per touch. As the season goes on and USC’s schedule gets tougher, it seems probable that Branch will become more involved in the Trojans’ offense.

So we’ve only seen glimpses of what Branch can do so far. Though it would be a surprise if anyone kicks to him for the rest of the season.

What’s next?

The Trojans move into the bye week in seemingly good shape health-wise. Offensive lineman Gino Quinones is out for the season but almost everyone else seems to be OK as USC is now through a quarter of its regular season.

Linebacker Mason Cobb did not play on Saturday but on Thursday Riley said he’s progressing well. So it would figure that he would be on a good track to play in two weeks at Arizona State.

The Sun Devils are a bit of a mystery. First-year coach Kenny Dillingham turned over the roster in the offseason and Arizona State’s first game was a weird, delayed game against Southern Utah.

The Sun Devils gave Oklahoma State a fight on Saturday night before losing 27-15 and true freshman quarterback Jaden Rashada has shown promise through two games.

Arizona State will be USC’s first road game of the season and everyone is already starting to talk about the Trojans’ trip to Colorado on Sept. 30. So it has the potential to be a trap game if not taken seriously.

USC didn’t completely blow out anyone on the road last season either so who knows what kind of challenge Arizona State will present in a few weeks.

(Photo: Kirby Lee / USA Today)

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