Is No. 5 USC as strong as its record? Three good and three bad trends for the Trojans

USC running back MarShawn Lloyd embraces quarterback Caleb Williams after scoring a touchdown against Stanford
USC running back MarShawn Lloyd (0) celebrates with quarterback Caleb Williams (13) after scoring a touchdown during the first half against Stanford at the Coliseum on Sept. 9. (Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

There was no way Lincoln Riley would bite, even if the stats gave him a perfect reason to indulge.

“Do you think this team has the chance to be the best team you’ve ever coached?” a reporter asked this week.

Riley recoiled.

“This team has a chance to be a very good team,” said Riley, who is in second year leading USC and took three teams to the College Football Playoff in his first six seasons as a coach. “But we’re three games in. We’re one conference game in with a lot of things we haven’t done yet that we’re getting opportunities to do so. We’ll get our chance, just like we have every year. If we are [one of my best teams], then we’ll prove it here in the next couple months.”

The No. 5 Trojans (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) cruised into the bye week with blowout wins against San José State, Nevada and Stanford, but opening the season with three consecutive games of 50 points or more for the first time in school history won’t count for much on USC’s final resume. For a team with championship aspirations, the wins were only the beginning.

Here are three good trends and three bad trends USC faces during its bye week:

The Good

Williams’ Heisman hopes

USC quarterback Caleb Williams gets a pass.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams gets a pass off in front of a Stanford defender in the first quarter at the Coliseum on Sept. 9. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Some of his numbers aren’t as gaudy as other contenders, but Caleb Williams is still the Heisman favorite for a reason.

The reigning winner is executing with ruthless efficiency: He leads the country in pass efficiency while ranking modestly in total offense (16th, 313 yards per game) and passing yards (16th, 292.7). Despite playing 25 of USC’s 36 drives, Williams still leads the nation in passing touchdowns with 12. He is averaging one touchdown for every 5.8 passes.

With Williams leading the charge, USC’s offense is on pace to be the highest-scoring team of Riley’s coaching career. The Trojans averaged 59.3 points per game through three weeks.

Read more: Caleb Williams on USC's rout of Stanford: 'We’re trying to make everybody feel our pain'

Vibes in the receiver room 

USC kick returner Zachariah Branch beats Stanford's Gaethan Bernadel for a touchdown.
USC kick returner Zachariah Branch beats Stanford's Gaethan Bernadel for a touchdown in the second quarter at the Coliseum on Sept. 9. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

In a position group as deep as USC’s receivers, the best ability is humility.

“Being too selfish breaks teams,” receiver Brenden Rice said. “You see this group of guys knowing that everybody and anybody wants to be that big playmaker, but everybody’s going to support each other and that’s what makes the Trojans a really good team.”

The arsenal of skill players will be vital as the quality of opponent increases during Pac-12 play after last year’s receiving stats were dominated by Jordan Addison.

Different players lead the Trojans in catches (Mario Williams, 10), receiving yards (Tahj Washington, 233) and touchdowns (Washington and Rice, three). The group is so deep that preseason camp MVP Kyron Hudson has struggled to find a place, earning three catches for 42 yards. Freshman phenom Zachariah Branch has nine catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns but is making his biggest impact on special teams, where he’s already scored on kickoff and punt returns.

Pressure in the backfield

USC defensive end Solomon Byrd during a game against Nevada.
USC defensive end Solomon Byrd (51) during a game against Nevada on Sept. 2 at the Coliseum. (Johm McCoy / Associated Press)

USC is not just stacked at the skill positions. The coaching staff’s offseason transfer portal raid is paying off on the defensive front, where the Trojans are thriving with a variety of pass rushers.

USC has 27 tackles for loss (nine per game), with no player tallying more than 4½. After Solomon Byrd’s team-leading total, nickel back Jaylin Smith has 3½ tackles for loss.

The balanced approach is a key improvement from last season when the Trojans averaged 5.6 tackles for loss behind Pac-12 defensive player of the year Tuli Tuipulotu, who notched 22 of USC’s 79 tackles for loss.

Diversifying the defensive pressure was a priority for the Trojans. Five of the team’s 15 new transfers were defensive linemen or rush ends.

“Everyone’s just out there trying to eat,” said freshman rush end Braylan Shelby, who has two tackles for loss and one sack. “We try to feed each other. If we stay in our rush lanes, good things are going to happen.”

The bad

Cornerback play 

USC cornerback Domani Jackson takes his stance during a game against San Jose State.
USC cornerback Domani Jackson takes his stance during a game against San Jose State on Aug. 26 at the Coliseum. (Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch commended Smith, the nickel, and safeties Bryson Shaw, Max Williams and Calen Bullock for their performance against Stanford, but the corner position is in flux.

Sophomore Domani Jackson soon could be battling Christian Roland-Wallace for a starting spot. The Arizona transfer was working as the No. 2 nickel during camp after Jackson grabbed the starting cornerback spot, but Roland-Wallace seems to be moving into a larger role. He played the most snaps of any defensive player against Stanford, according to Pro Football Focus, and spelled Jackson at cornerback.

The unforgiving position has magnified the pressure on Jackson as he returns from a knee injury suffered during his senior year at Mater Dei. The former five-star prospect's untapped potential comes in contrast to the veteran Roland-Wallace, who led Arizona in tackles last season while starting all 12 games at cornerback.

Although his experience could give him an advantage, the redshirt senior said he has no problems rotating with Jackson and fellow cornerback Ceyair Wright.

“I trust in the staff,” Roland-Wallace said. “I trust in Coach Riley, Coach Grinch, Coach Donte [Williams]. However it happens to play out, I am completely fine with it. I know they’re doing what’s best for the team.”


USC running back MarShawn Lloyd stiff arms Sanford linebacker Spencer Jorgensen as he carries the ball.
USC running back MarShawn Lloyd puts a stiff arm to Stanford linebacker Spencer Jorgensen in the second quarter at the Coliseum on Sept. 9. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

USC is the most-penalized team in the Pac-12, tied with Arizona and Oregon with eight per game. Half of the team’s 24 penalties have been for holding.

“Some of the penalties just make you want to pull your hair out,” Riley said.

Holding penalties negated two touchdowns against Stanford. The Trojans made up for the call that wiped out MarShawn Lloyd’s 29-yard touchdown in the first quarter by scoring four plays later with a three-yard rush from Austin Jones, but Michael Jackson III didn’t get another chance after his 74-yard punt return was called back for holding by Duce Robinson.

While Riley can forgive the occasional aggressive penalty, “careless” penalties continue to irk him.

“Good teams don’t do that, good players don’t get dumb penalties,” Riley said. “And for us, I told them, it’s really simple: If we get some of the penalties like we did, those guys aren’t going to play. I mean, there’s no player that’s so good that they’re worth that. We’ll get it corrected.”

Read more: College football review: In this Pac-12, a USC playoff run would require true greatness

The schedule

Colorado wide receiver Tar'Varish Dawson is congratulated by wide receiver Xavier Weaver after scoring a touchdown.
Colorado wide receiver Tar'Varish Dawson, left, is congratulated by wide receiver Xavier Weaver after scoring a touchdown in the second half against Nebraska on Sept. 9 in Boulder, Colo. (David Zalubowski / Associated Press)

It’s easy to look good against USC’s early schedule. There still are more unanswered questions about the team than sure things, and the upcoming slate will show who the Trojans really are.

USC has three of its next four games on the road and six of its final nine games against teams in the Associated Press top 25. Three of those games — No. 18 Colorado, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 13 Oregon — are on the road. The strength of the Pac-12 (yes, really) means the Trojans don’t need an undefeated run to secure a playoff berth, but they still can’t afford two losses. The College Football Playoff never has featured a two-loss team.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.