USC offensive versatility on display against Fresno State: Trojan’s takeaways

USC offensive versatility on display against Fresno State: Trojan’s takeaways

LOS ANGELES – The first defender grasped at Travis Dye but failed to corral him. A few yards later, a pair of Fresno State players converged and hit each other as Dye ran through their tackle attempts.

Dye spun his way out of a fourth would-be tackler, stayed on his feet and, for good measure, ran through a fifth on his way to the end zone as he scored on a 25-yard touchdown run. Once he got to the end zone, he opened his arms wide, almost as if to ask the crowd of 67,000-plus inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, “Are you not entertained?” a la Maximus in Gladiator.

The Trojans offense has put on quite the show through the first three weeks of the season. On Saturday, USC simply overpowered the Bulldogs, 45-17, in an impressive showing that tested the Trojans (3-0) in ways we haven’t quite witnessed yet this season.

Some of the same themes continued. The defense looked shaky at times but mostly came up with stops when it needed to. The offense wasn’t as explosive or breathtaking as it showed last week against Stanford but was still good enough to blow by a solid Fresno State team.

“The only defense that could stop us is ourselves,” running back Austin Jones said. “No one can really stop us as long as we trust our technique and do everything we need to do. No one can stop us.”

Let’s dive deeper into what’s sparked that offensive confidence and examine some other takeaways from USC’s triumph over Fresno State.

1. The run game dominates

Dye and Jones rushed for a combined 113 yards on 11 carries in the first half. At the same time, the offensive line was having some issues protecting quarterback Caleb Williams, who was sacked three times in the first two quarters, and the passing attack didn’t look as in sync as it had the previous two weeks.

Knowing that, it made sense the Trojans would rely on Dye and Jones heavily in the second half.

“We saw some openings in the first half that we missed a bit in the run,” Dye said. “We definitely made it an emphasis to run the ball more in the second half.”

USC wisely leaned on its ground game in the second half. Dye’s aforementioned 25-yard touchdown run was the highlight, but the Trojans simply gashed Fresno State on the ground. Dye rushed for 102 yards on just 11 carries while Jones gained 110 yards on 12 carries. Each had a rushing touchdown in the second half.

They’re the first pair of USC running backs to top 100 yards in the same game since Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai accomplished the feat against Oregon State in 2018.

“I know we both had the capability of doing it,” Dye said. “He’s a great back, and I think of myself as a great back. It doesn’t mean we have to hate each other because we’re good backs. No, we could feed off each other.”

USC’s offense was much more workmanlike against the Bulldogs, who seemed intent on limiting the big play. Williams didn’t have a bunch of deep shots down the field like he did against Stanford.

The Trojans had to play a more methodical style of football Saturday because Fresno State made this offense work for everything and forced it into more third-and-longs and fourth-down attempts than it faced in the first two weeks of the season.

“That was a point of emphasis for the offense,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “We’ve got to be able to win in different ways. Playing fast or explosive plays or it slows down and you have a lot of plays you have to be able to execute.”

By grinding out long possessions, the Trojans were able to limit the time their defense was on the field. At one point in the first half, USC had run 39 plays to the Bulldogs’ 12 and had controlled the ball for 17 minutes and five seconds compared to four minutes and 53 seconds for Fresno State.

Williams helped in that regard, too, because he utilized his legs to keep some drives alive. He picked up 5 yards on a fourth-and-2 play to keep USC’s second touchdown drive alive. That possession fittingly ended with an 8-yard TD run by Williams. In the second quarter, Williams picked up 11 yards on a fourth-and-1 rush and finished off the possession with a 1-yard touchdown run on a QB sneak.

“I try not to use my legs, but that is an ability that I have,” Williams said. “I want to stand back there and deliver. I want to be the best delivery man back there in the world. I just had opportunities that opened up, (the) defense was giving me and I just took what they were giving me.”

Williams’ running ability is yet another example of what makes this offense so dangerous. Defenses have to account for Jordan Addison (six catches, 69 yards and a TD reception), Mario Williams (six catches for 77 yards) and USC’s other receivers. The more attention placed on them, though, leaves opportunities for the ground game, which we saw Saturday night.

Focus too much on the backs, and Williams can hurt you with his legs as well. Defenses can’t take away everything, especially from an offense that seems to have as many answers as USC’s.

2. Solomon Byrd emerges

After the game, Riley thought back to two weeks ago. At that time, rush end Solomon Byrd was listed on USC’s depth chart as third team at defensive end. The Wyoming transfer simply wasn’t getting on the field. In the postgame press conference, Riley asked USC’s newest revelation how many snaps he took against Rice.

“Five,” Byrd said.

Then Riley said: “That’s what we’re trying to build. A guy who in the first game of the season takes five reps and is a three, gets an opportunity, keeps working and now look at him.”

Starting rush end Romello Height suffered an injury to his right shoulder in the first quarter against Stanford. Byrd surprisingly filled in for him and finished with four tackles, two sacks and a pass breakup against the Cardinal. He built on that with four tackles, two for loss, a sack and a forced fumble against Fresno State, and he has emerged as an unexpected playmaker for USC’s defense after being an afterthought a few weeks ago.

“It was hard, I’m not going to lie,” Byrd said. “I came from Wyoming and was a starter, a big name up there. So when I came down here, there was a lot of talent. I just had to keep doing what I’ve been doing, and it’s starting to pay off.”

Byrd came up with one of the most significant plays of the game when he sacked Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener early in the third quarter. Haener fumbled the ball and it was recovered by Byrd. Five plays later, the Trojans scored a touchdown to extend their lead to 18 points, 28-10.

During the play, however, Byrd fell on Haener’s leg, which twisted violently and forced Haener to the ground writhing in pain. He was carted off the field moments later and was seen on crutches with his right foot in a boot after the game.

Haener is one of the most underrated QBs in the country. It’s doubtful that injury would’ve changed the outcome of the game, but it changed the complexion of it.

Back to Byrd, though. During spring practice and in training camp, Height took a majority of the first-team snaps at rush end. When he didn’t, Korey Foreman did. And when Foreman missed time, Julien Simon stepped in.

Byrd never really seemed to be in the mix there until he took the field against Stanford in Height’s absence. But it looks as though he’s certainly carved a role out for himself moving forward.

“From a trust standpoint, if you tell him to be in a gap, he’s in a gap a high percentage of the time,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said after the game. “Do your job. Do your 1/11th. It’s probably going to be good enough if you do it with the appropriate physicality. … He’s kind of become a poster child for it. The nice thing is the visual is if he does those things, it should be a message to everybody else: ‘If I play this way, I could have some production, too.’”

3. More bend but don’t break defense

Earlier in the week, linebacker Shane Lee was asked about the bend-but-don’t break nature of USC’s defense through the first two games. The Trojans had been giving up way too many yards but were coming up with timely stops in the red zone and forcing critical turnovers.

“The thing is,” Lee said. “Yards don’t mean points.”

Fresno State racked up 421 yards of total offense and made USC’s defense look really, really suspect at times, particularly against the run. But at the end of the day, the Bulldogs could muster only 17 points.

Even when Haener was playing in the first half, it’s not as though Fresno State was marching up and down the field.

“We just held a really, really good offense and offensive staff and offensive guys to 17 points,” Riley said. “Can it get better? Absolutely. Do we expect it to get better? Yes, but we’re finding ways to not let people score very many points, win games and make the big plays when we need to make ’em.”

The defense came up with five sacks against the Bulldogs, led by two from Tuli Tuipulotu. USC also recorded six tackles for loss and notched two turnovers — Byrd’s forced fumble and an interception by tight end Malcolm Epps on Haener’s Hail Mary attempt to end the first half.

The defense has done a pretty good job causing havoc. It has recorded 14 sacks and 26 TFLs through three games to go along with 10 takeaways. But it’s still left Grinch wanting more.

“I refuse to believe that’s the best we could play,” he said after the game.

The Trojans’ run fits looked sloppy again Saturday night. Fresno State running back Jordan Mims rushed for 114 yards on 15 carries. His backup, Malik Sherrod, rushed for 47 yards on eight carries. The Bulldogs as a team averaged 5.1 yards on 32 carries (164 yards).

“We’ve got to start believing around here that Saturdays are an extension of the work week,” Grinch said. “That’s what it is. If we’re not doing the right thing during the work week from a preparation standpoint as coaches, then we’ve got real, real issues. … Those are unacceptable. They’re not good, and they lead to points. It could put you behind the eight ball, which it did tonight.”

He pointed to the fact that near the goal line or in the red zone, USC is typically stout and plays sound assignment football. He seemed to be wondering why there’s a disconnect between the 20s that puts the defense in those situations.

He said he’s got to get the message across better and said he’ll look at the communication on the field. He also hinted he may look at personnel changes this week.

If those issues don’t get sorted out, then it’ll be a long night against Jonathan Smith’s offense next Saturday in Corvallis.

4. Offensive line health

USC entered the game without starting left tackle Courtland Ford, who injured his ankle late last week against Stanford. Ford suited up and was in pads but did not play.

That left Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins, who has been rotating with Ford through the first few weeks, as the starter at right guard. But it appeared Haskins banged up his left shoulder/arm late in the first half.

He had to leave the game for a play, which forced USC to put essentially its third-string left tackle, redshirt freshman Mason Murphy, in the game. Murphy was beat off the edge on his very first play, and Williams was eventually sacked.

Haskins returned to the game on the next drive but went down on the turf once again in the fourth quarter and had to be checked out by the athletic trainers. Riley did not express concern about Haskins’ outlook after the game.

“He could’ve played if (necessary),” Riley said. “Just took a pretty good shot but he was laughing and joking out there. I can’t repeat it all, but he’ll be good.”

Ford didn’t appear close to entering the game when Haskins got banged up. So we’ll see if he’s ready to go next week against Oregon State. USC desperately needs either Ford or Haskins playing left tackle against the Beavers.

Depth on both sides of the line has been a question for USC, and it’s certainly getting tested early in the season.

About the Author: Mofazzal Hossen

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