Oregon State marks the first big challenge of the Lincoln Riley era at USC

·12 min read

The USC Trojans have opened as a touchdown favorite against Oregon State on the road this Saturday. That’s a healthy amount of respect for USC. If you realize that home-field advantage is worth around six points, this means USC would have been favored by 13 points if it had hosted the Beavers this year.

In 2021, Oregon State waltzed into the Coliseum and throttled the Trojans, 45-27. This was the first time Oregon State had beaten USC in Los Angeles since 1960. The Trojans are already so respected that they’re expected to win on the road against a team which owned them a year ago and has the makings of a Pac-12 title contender. If USC wins by 10 points, it will have engineered a 28-point turnaround from last year’s 18-point loss to the Beavers.

Oregon State is 3-0, having won on the road against the same Fresno State team USC defeated at home on Saturday. OSU head coach Jonathan Smith is lying in the weeds, waiting to spring an ambush. For so many reasons, this game is an enormous challenge for Lincoln Riley and USC. If he wins this game, it will be a huge achievement … and if he loses, the outlook for the 2022 season will become a lot worse.

No, this game shouldn’t determine the longer arc of the USC story under Lincoln Riley. This game won’t hurt the outlook for 2023 or 2024, but it is the key test of the 2022 season, a game which shapes what is possible for October and November, which will tell us where the Trojans play in December or early January.

Let’s look at the many reasons this game is the biggest challenge for USC to date in the early stages of the Lincoln Riley era.

OREGON STATE IS THE AMBUSH ARTIST IN CORVALLIS

Sep 25, 2008; Corvallis, OR, USA; Southern California Trojans receiver Patrick Turner (1) is tackled by Oregon State Beavers linebacker Greg Laybourn (44), left, and cornerback Brandon Hughes (36) at Reser Stadium. Oregon State defeated Southern California 27-21. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-USA TODAY Sports

Remember the Pete Carroll teams of 2006 and 2008? They lost in Corvallis. USC’s dreams have been dashed multiple times in Reser Stadium. The Trojans need to conquer this historic graveyard.

LEFT TACKLE

TUCSON, ARIZONA – NOVEMBER 14: Offensive lineman Courtland Ford #74 of the USC Trojans warms up before the PAC-12 football game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium on November 14, 2020 in Tucson, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Courtland Ford dressed for the Fresno State game but didn’t play. This would seem to indicate he’ll be able to play at Oregon State, but he’s likely not going to be at full strength. The same appears to be true for Bobby Haskins. We saw what happens when this offensive line has to go deep into the depth chart. Mason Murphy was not ready for Fresno State. Ford and Haskins have to hold down the fort at left tackle. If they show signs of weakness early in the game, Lincoln Riley has to be quick to adjust his play selection, his play mixture, and how he gives Caleb Williams a comfort zone. Let’s talk more about that series of challenges here:

QUICK PASSES

Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams (13) reacts against the Fresno State Bulldogs] in the first half at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If the pass rush is a problem for the left side of USC’s line, Riley needs to get the ball out quickly and have Williams throw lots of screens and short passes to his receivers. At worst, these passes will gain five yards. At best, Jordan Addison or Mario Williams can run after the catch and create big plays.

OREGON STATE'S TACTICS

The Beavers surely noticed that Fresno State sat back in coverage and took away the deep ball from USC. This is the defensive approach which bothered Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. Iowa State was especially good at forcing OU to be patient and consistent. We talked about this on The Riley Files.

Caleb Williams must be patient in this game. He can’t try to do too much.

NUMBERS GAME

Run the ball or pass the ball? That’s the overly simplistic question fans often being to discussions of how to attack a defense. Keep in mind that a screen pass is basically an extended running play. The same for a quick hitch pass. It’s an extended handoff outside the tackles.

The true test for Caleb Williams — and for Lincoln Riley as a play-caller — is to identify how many defenders Oregon State puts in the tackle box at the snap and adjust the call accordingly. If OSU is going to sit back in coverage, run the ball. If OSU dares USC to run and loads up the box, that’s when USC can take shots down the field. It’s all about seeing how the Beavers adjust.

HOLDING THEIR CARDS

Dec 19, 2020; Corvallis, Oregon, USA; Oregon State Beavers head coach Jonathan Smith walks the sideline during the first half against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Reser Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon State’s rushing attack is where the Beavers expect to do well, but in the first three weeks of 2022, the OSU passing game has been more at the heart of the Beaver offense. It seems that head coach Jonathan Smith is keeping his cards close to the vest, waiting to spring something on USC. Lincoln Riley and Alex Grinch need to be ready in their film study. They need to look at what Oregon State has done in previous seasons to gash USC on the ground. They also need to study 2021 film to identify more detailed packages and formations. Oregon State played Montana State in Week 3. The Beavers were very vanilla in that game. The chess match in terms of not showing too much early in the season, and then busting out new looks or wrinkles in Week 4, will be a huge part of this game.

OREGON STATE BLITZ

It would seem that Oregon State should follow the Fresno State plan of sitting back in coverage and taking away the deep shot from Jordan Addison and Mario Williams, but if the Beavers do decide to blitz, Caleb Williams needs to be prepared. What often works against a blitz: Throw in the direction of the blitz, to the area vacated by the blitzing linebacker or safety.

TRAVIS DYE

Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles; USC Trojans running back Travis Dye (26) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Fresno State Bulldogs. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Oregon State knows Travis Dye extremely well, since Dye played at Oregon before transferring to USC. Lincoln Riley has a chance to use Dye as a decoy and draw the attention of Oregon State’s defense to set up various plays and counters.

CALEB WILLIAMS AS A RUNNING QB

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Caleb Williams using the read option was an adjustment to Fresno State’s ability to generate a pass rush, but it also represented an attempt to give Oregon State something to look at on film. If the Beavers are concerned with Caleb Williams as a runner, that will create opportunities to throw downfield against a stacked tackle box.

PRE-SNAP MOTION

On one of the fourth downs USC converted against Fresno State, Caleb Williams was in the shotgun. We hate shotguns on fourth down and short yardage, but if you’re going to use the shotgun, pre-snap motion is essential. Riley put a man in motion before the snap, going to the left. Caleb ran a read option play to the right side and got a first down against a Fresno State defense which hesitated, in part because of the eye candy provided by the man in motion to the left. Expect to see Riley do this more often against Oregon State. At some point, we should expect the motion man — maybe Addison, maybe Mario Williams — to get the handoff or pitch on an end-around.

CHANCE NOLAN

Sep 17, 2022; Portland, Oregon, USA; Oregon State Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan (10) throws the ball during the second half against the Montana State Bobcats at Providence Park. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Chance Nolan led a last-minute touchdown drive against Fresno State, throwing the ball accurately and consistently. Nolan has grown as a passer, which leads us to wonder if Oregon State will throw first to set up the run. This would not be the normal OSU approach under Jonathan Smith, but USC has to be prepared for it.

RED-ZONE DEFENSE

Sep 25, 2021; Los Angeles; Oregon State WR Tre’Shaun Harrison (0) beats USC CB Chris Steele (8) and runs to the end zone. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

USC’s red-zone defense has been great, but the overall performance of the defense has been spotty. The big concern: If teams keep moving the ball against this defense, at some point they’re going to finish drives. Red-zone percentages will even out. USC has to find ways of not getting into so many red-zone situations (which don’t involve giving up long TD plays).

THIRD DOWNS

USC converted three third downs and three fourth downs on its first three drives against Fresno State. USC faced six different third downs on its first three drives and eventually converted them, either on third or fourth down. USC will need that level of clutch play. The Trojans simply can’t give up too many possessions against an opponent which is built to control the ball and keep Caleb Williams on the sideline.

DEFENSIVE TIMETABLE

One big reason this game is such a huge challenge for USC is that the defense is still learning how to play under Alex Grinch. If this game was in late October, the Trojans would have a much better understanding of how to function better as a unit. The late-September date takes time away from USC’s defense. Can enough players take enough steps forward that the defense can minimize damage? This is a central question for Sept. 24 in Corvallis.

SCOREBOARD QUESTIONS

USC has had multi-possession leads in the third quarter of every game so far this season. What if a game is tied or involves a three- or four-point margin in the third quarter? USC’s defense has had a cushion — a security blanket — through three games. Having an 11- or 14- or 27-point lead certainly reduces stress for a defense. If the game is much closer, how will USC’s defense respond?

FOURTH-QUARTER PRESSURE

Related to the item above, USC has not been in a close game in the fourth quarter this season. How will the Trojans react if this game is really tight in the final minutes? Lincoln Riley’s ability to create top performance in stressful situations, and impress upon his players the need to rise to the occasion, will be tested.

CALEB WILLIAMS HEISMAN SCENE-SETTER

What if Oregon State leads by four points with three minutes left, and USC gets possession of the ball? What will Caleb Williams do? This could be the game in which the Trojans’ quarterback confronts his first really profound moment at USC.

THE WASHINGTON FACTOR

Sep 17, 2022; Seattle; Washington’s Kamren Fabiculanan (13) defends a pass against Michigan State’s Daniel Barker (9) at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Washington might be a Pac-12 title contender, something we didn’t expect in the offseason. The Oregon State game is therefore extra important for USC, because Washington doesn’t play USC or Utah and — in the event of a USC loss — would have a more favorable path to the Pac-12 Championship Game.

USC DEFENSIVE LINE

USC’s defense has not given up large numbers of points, but we know the defensive line and its run fits have not been great. Can this unit piece together a reasonably competent performance against its toughest opponent to this point in the 2022 season?

SECONDARY IS PRIMARY

The USC secondary still hasn’t been burned for a long touchdown pass this season. If Oregon State shows a run formation, the safeties have to be prepared to not get beaten over the top on a play fake and a deep shot.

TALENT MEETS TIMELINESS

USC’s goal-line stand late in the Fresno State game was an inspiring moment. That said, it was still a 28-point game. The stakes were not high. Can USC make those kinds of tough plays in a close game, when the outcome hangs in the balance or at least will be shaped by what the Trojans do?

THE LIMITS OF 2022

Lincoln Riley has, in the past at Oklahoma, lost a game early in the season before adjusting and rebounding in the second half of the season. Maybe he can do that at USC if the Trojans lose to Oregon State. However, Riley has less depth this year than he did at any point in his Oklahoma career. The limits of 2022 mean that losing an early-season game might not be overcome the way Riley overcame early losses with the Sooners.

CONFIRMATION

Sep 3, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley reacts in the second half against the Rice Owls at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

No one can look at USC and seriously doubt that eventually, Lincoln Riley will figure everything out and get this program back to a top level. It’s not a matter of if, but when. The big question has always been if USC can quickly restore itself and have a successful season this year, in 2022. In 2023, USC will have a lot more depth. The weaknesses on the roster will not exist to the extent that they do now. Riley will eventually win big here at USC. This Oregon State game should tell us if Riley can win big in Year 1, and get his restoration project done ahead of schedule. We’ll see on Saturday night.

Story originally appeared on Trojans Wire