TEMPE, Ariz. — Through four games, this much feels clear: At this point of the season, USC isn’t playing to the level of some of the other top contenders in the Pac-12.
Sure, the Trojans beat Arizona State 42-28 on Saturday in front of a raucous crowd of 54,166 fans at Sun Devil Stadium. The 14-point margin of victory disguises a game that was much closer for much longer than most would have expected.
Remember, the Sun Devils were shut out (29-0) by Fresno State last week. They beat Southern Utah by three points in their season opener. They simply are not very good.
Yes, it’s a long season, and there’s time for USC to improve, but all its flaws were on display Saturday night. And those have to get cleaned up before the better, more talented teams on the schedule have the chance to exploit them in troubling fashion during the second half of the season.
“That’s the season,” Lincoln Riley said. “How are you going to go and top being up 49-3 at half the previous week? That’s not reality. The challenges continue to change, and you either respond and keep growing together as a team and getting better and winning along the way, or you don’t. We won. We did a lot of good things, and we’ve got a lot to get better at, and we’ve got to get ready for another tough road one next week.”
On Saturday, Oregon looked as dominant as it could possibly be when it dismantled Colorado. Washington put up 45 points in the first half and beat Cal. Utah improved to 4-0 and beat a top-25 UCLA team despite the Utes’ starting quarterback, Cam Rising, not taking a snap this season.
The Trojans (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) have an extremely high ceiling, Caleb Williams and an endless array of skill threats, which will give them a chance in every game. But the team’s issues were out in the open for everyone to see.
USC’s defense surrendered 28 points to an offense that was on its third-string quarterback and scored only 24 points against Southern Utah when it was healthy — not extremely banged up like it was this week.
The unit that couldn’t tackle against Utah and Tulane to finish last season constantly struggled to bring down Arizona State running back Cam Skattebo, who rushed for 111 yards and a score and caught four passes for 79 yards and a touchdown, and his 52-yard catch and run in the fourth quarter showcased all the concerns there were about the USC defense entering the season.
Great run by Cam Skattebo? Absolutely.
Bad tackling? Yes, that too.pic.twitter.com/r7zCFk0ZFX
— Max Olson (@max_olson) September 24, 2023
The USC defense did have some positives Saturday night — the pass rush collected eight sacks and forced a few turnovers. But if the defense had this many issues against an undermanned Sun Devils team, what would it be like against Notre Dame, Washington or Oregon?
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch entered the season under the microscope, and the heat only will intensify after this latest effort, especially when the same issues from a year ago reappeared.
The surprise on Saturday was USC’s offense, which put up 42 points but left a lot of meat on the bone. It struggled to finish drives in the red zone. The offensive line had issues in pass protection, and Williams had to run around more than expected. When the defense did make some stops, the offense had a hard time capitalizing on those opportunities.
MarShawn Lloyd rushed 14 times for 154 yards, but USC got away from the run and forced the passing game when it wasn’t clicking.
It was somewhat similar to USC’s first road game last season against Oregon State when the offense played its worst game of the season. The Trojans were better against the Sun Devils, but the false starts, the drops (mainly by Mario Williams), the failure to maximize red-zone chances, the uncharacteristic struggles on third downs, etc., showed there’s still a lot to clean up.
With a defense that still has flaws, the offense will have to be at its best against the likes of Washington and Oregon, which have two of the best offenses in the country and outstanding quarterbacks. The defense will have to handle the road environment better when it plays at Notre Dame on Oct. 14, and next week at Colorado, which is wounded right now but will still have an electric atmosphere when the Trojans arrive in Boulder.
Williams still finished with 322 yards passing and three touchdown passes. Brenden Rice caught seven passes for 133 yards and two scores. There was some good to take away from this game for USC.
But it was far from an impressive win — it was arguably the ugliest of Riley’s 18-game tenure. The good thing for the Trojans is they weren’t playing Washington, Oregon or Utah on Saturday night. They’ll have to play those teams soon enough, however, and if USC wants to accomplish what it set out to before the season — a Pac-12 championship and a College Football Playoff appearance — it’ll have to play much better than what it put on tape against Arizona State.
(Top photo of Caleb Williams: Kevin Abele / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)