TEMPE, Ariz. – Over the course of three weeks and three one-sided losses, USC got used to ending its Saturdays in cruise control.
Caleb Williams, the Trojans’ Heisman Trophy winner, spent most of the team’s flawless second half on the sideline while freshmen and walk-ons took the field in the fourth quarter. Even USC’s much-maligned defense looked strong, defeating the likes of San Jose State, Nevada and Stanford, holding the latter two teams to a combined 24 points.
After those three weeks, it was impossible to know where USC actually stood. Was the defense better than expected? Was the offensive really unstoppable? Was this a College Football Playoff contender?
It was expected that the real tests would come sooner or later. Just not Saturday in Tempe.
While the rest of the Pac-12 contenders made compelling statements about their strength – Oregon dominated Colorado, Washington beat California, Utah stifled UCLA – USC’s game with a 42-28 win over Arizona raised more concerns about what’s going on Development of the season condition.
The most important of which is how their defense will fare against these opponents when it has struggled at times to stop the Sun Devils, who hadn’t scored in six quarters entering Saturday and were reliant on only their third quarterback.
“We want the tough games,” linebacker Tackett Curtis said. “Nobody just wants the easy win – that’s what we live for, the tough games. We live for the pressure.”
The defense showed up in the fourth quarter on Saturday, providing a pass rush when USC needed it most. Defensive tackle Bear Alexander stopped a potentially game-winning drive with a third-down sack. A strip sack by Solomon Byrd stopped the next possession. The Trojans added four sacks on a single drive to finally close the door.
“When we finish the game, we live by the mantra: The longer we play, the better we get,” edge rusher Jamil Muhammad said.
But the only reason USC needed four sacks on a late drive to stop the Sun Devils was because of the four plays of 13 yards or more in between.
That won’t work against better Pac-12 offenses, starting next week in Colorado, where USC will face an explosive group that was just embarrassed at the national level by the Ducks and is undoubtedly eager to prove itself again. Even after that, the schedule doesn’t let up.
There is still time to right the ship. USC had its worst performance in its first road game last year, narrowly escaping with a win at Oregon State. Perhaps the Trojans will follow the same pattern this season.
But after its first real test, it was clear that USC still has a lot to learn and a long way to go before it can be considered a serious contender.