After two weeks of bending and bending and bending some more, it seemed only a matter of time before USC’s uneasy defenses would finally break, leaving Caleb Williams and their exciting counterparts to save the Trojans on their own.
The possibility loomed like a dark cloud over an impossibly bright start to the season for USC, sneaking into every conversation about the Trojans’ trajectory, a warning it had yet to counter.
Those worries crept back into the Coliseum during the USC’s 45-17 win on Saturday night, even as the Trojans maintained a largely comfortable lead the entire time. They rolled in as Fresno State soared 421 feet up and down the field and reverberated as Bulldog race backs burst through huge holes in the USC front.
But again, that dark cloud was swept away before the Trojans got into too much trouble. This time, however, it wasn’t just Williams who got USC out of harm’s way.
This time, USC’s defense wouldn’t need four takeaways to do its part.
The Trojans added two more sales to their piling up for the early season. But their most encouraging moments came at the most critical moments on Saturday, just as Fresno State threatened to break open the game.
Twice in the second half, the Bulldogs looked poised to push back into the game, but were thwarted by major actions by the USC defense.
The first came from rush end Solomon Byrd, who burst over the edge on first possession of the second half and knocked Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener to the grass, forcing a fumble that would knock Haener out of the game. .
Three games later, the Trojans scored from 23 yards from Travis Dye, extending their lead to 18.
From there, USC’s defense allowed just a single score from a Fresno State offense that came in Saturday as one of the most prolific in college football over two weeks. It stopped a ride with a third bag from Brandon Pili and another from Tuli Tuipulotu. It even added a final goal line to the one-yard line for good measure.
It was far from perfect in that regard. But as USC rolled to a third win in a row to open the season, it could rest easy knowing that its defense was nowhere near breaking. Not yet, at least.
Another strong performance from Williams certainly helped. The quarterback finished with 284 yards and two touchdowns in the air, while adding two more on the ground. The Trojans also had two 100-yard rushers as Travis Dye and Austin Jones rolled across the Fresno front, adding a touchdown each.
The defense had the advantage of another great start from those playmakers, as USC scored touchdowns on each of its first three possessions for the third week in a row.
Like last week — and the week before — USC marched off the field on its opening stage and made an early statement. Dye got the Trojans’ attack off the ground, running 42 yards with his first four carries. Williams completed two tightly capped passes to convert two third-and-longs on USC’s first possession, before finding Jordan Addison in the end zone for a three-meter score, Addison’s fifth in just nine quarters for USC.
Williams interrupted the Trojans’ next trip with a touchdown, feigning a handoff before rushing eight yards to give USC an early 14-point lead and Williams his first rushing score of the season. He added another on the next possession, giving the USC quarterback his first multi-score game on the ground.
But the more stunning early statement came on Fresno State’s first drive, when the USC defense forced an immediate three-and-out, setting a strong tone that he hoped would last through the night.
Instead, it all took one possession as Fresno State took just five plays on the next drive to make its way into the red zone. It wouldn’t get much further than that, as USC’s defenses once again stood upright with their backs to the end zone, stopping the Bulldogs on three straight plays in the 10 to force a field goal.
The defense wouldn’t fare as well on the next try, as Fresno State flew across the field again, this time finding the end zone in under 90 seconds.
Two plays later, USC was right back in the red zone.
This time it couldn’t be converted as Williams looked for a precious life in the sack before being fired out of range for the field goal.
But USC returned to its high-flying ways after the break, as the defense did its best to hold out.
This time, the Trojans were sure to cling tightly.
Bobby Haskins starts
After two consecutive Saturdays of splitting snaps between the top two tackles, USC was largely stuck with one left tackle against Fresno State, when Bobby Haskins came in for an injured Courtland Ford as the full-time blindside protector.
Ford was dressed on Saturday but ended up sitting outside as he continues to recover from an injured ankle.
It looked like USC Haskins could also lose as the senior tackle briefly left the game in the second quarter, holding his left shoulder.
Redshirt freshman Mason Murphy took his place and gave up a sack on his first game. On the next disc, Haskins came back.
Ford should return soon enough. Whether he will supplant Haskins if he does, remains to be seen.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.