Clarity isn’t necessarily a good thing for a coaching staff or a fan base after a Week 1 game. If clarity means that a team is clearly in big trouble, that’s not a welcome development or cause for hope.
As long as the outlook isn’t dire, and as long as there’s a reasonable chance that a team can be very good over the course of the season, clarity is good. It points the way for a coaching staff and a locker room. It shows everyone in the film room that improvement — excellence — is possible and attainable.
I think USC inhabits such a situation. Excellence is hardly guaranteed, given the defense’s many problems, but there is no doubt about the claim that the defense knows exactly where and how it must improve. Having that clarity is a good thing to take into a very big Week 2 game at Stanford.
Here are five takeaways from USC’s 52-point win over Rice:
CALEB WILLIAMS IS THE REAL DEAL
Sep 3, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) carries the ball in the first half against the Rice Owls at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
No explanation needed, but it’s obviously one of the top five stories from this game.
LINCOLN RILEY WON'T LET THIS OFFENSE FAIL
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 03: Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans listens to head coach Lincoln Riley during the second quarter against the Rice Owls at United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 03, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Clay Helton had no idea how to utilize and deploy talented skill players. This is what it looks like when a brilliant offensive coach gets to call plays for gifted players. If the starters stay healthy, this offense is not going to have many average games. Sure, the USC defense might give up 40 points on a few occasions this year. This offense could score 50 and prevail anyway. (It will likely need to win at least one such game, if not two, in order to make the Pac-12 Championship Game.)
PASS RUSH AND RUN DEFENSE ARE BIG PROBLEMS
Sep 18, 2021; Pullman, Washington, USA; USC Trojans defensive lineman Korey Foreman (0) against the Washington State Cougars in the second half at Gesa Field at Martin Stadium. The Trojans won 45-14. Mandatory Credit: James Snook-USA TODAY Sports
Rice’s offensive line controlled USC’s defensive front for most of the first 20 minutes. Sure, it got better in the second half, but USC led by a ton of points. That doesn’t mean all that much.
This is where the bare cupboard left behind by Clay Helton really matters. This defense is going to be limited. The season’s success depends on reducing the severity of these limitations. They will not be eliminated.
THIRD-DOWN DEFENSE WILL DEFINE THE SEASON
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – SEPTEMBER 03: Calen Bullock #7 of the USC Trojans runs by Eric Gentry #18 after his interception, to score a touchdown and take a 28-7 lead over the Rice Owls, during the second quarter at United Airlines Field at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 03, 2022 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
If there’s one statistical category which means more to this year’s team than anything else, it’s third-down defensive stops/conversions.
If the USC defense can be reliable on 3rd and 6 or 7 in 2022, the Trojans can reach their goals. This defense had a problem getting off the field in the first half against Rice. Improvement against Stanford is a central priority for the Trojans in Week 2.
THE BENEFITS OF BLOWOUTS
Sep 3, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Austin Jones (6) scores a touchdown in the second half against the Rice Owls at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
Blowing out Rice isn’t that big a deal, but it’s worth noting that this game was over with 12 minutes left in the third quarter. That very rarely happened under Clay Helton — maybe once or twice in a year, but not more than that.
Here’s the thing about blowouts: When they occur regularly, backups get a lot more live snaps and a lot more film to study. This is how Alabama and Georgia and Ohio State develop players. They’re so constantly winning lopsided games that they’re able to spread out the snap counts throughout the roster. USC is going to score more blowouts, and that will accelerate development of backups. This is only going to improve in future years, but you got a taste of this in Week 1 of 2022.