It is striking how many parallels exist among USC’s first three games of the 2022 season. Yes, this Fresno State game took a sharp turn away from the Rice and Stanford games in a few key respects. First, the left tackle position is now noticeably weaker and more uncertain, though Courtland Ford is likely to play against Oregon State and hopefully shore up that position. The big concern: If he gets hurt, Bobby Haskins will not be 100 percent. He is banged up, and USC needs Ford to carry a large workload in Corvallis this coming Saturday.
Another dimension of the Fresno State game which was different from previous weeks: The opposing team’s star quarterback got hurt early in the third quarter. We’re talking, of course, about Jake Haener, who left with an injury shortly after halftime. For these reasons, grades are not as easy to arrive at.
We will tell you this much: USC’s defense hasn’t fixed some central flaws, but it keeps making timely plays in the red zone. If it can do those things one more time versus Oregon State, grades will be elevated for Week 4 … but we need to see it.
Here’s our report card for Fresno State:
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
It was certainly not a bad game for Caleb, who played well on fourth downs in the first half to get the job done, but we saw a lot of missed reads and open receivers. This was not one of his better games.
We saw hesitancy in the pocket. Naturally, the injuries at left tackle created these problems, but it’s still on the QB to respond properly, and Williams did not make the grade on several plays. He also threw a pass which created offensive pass interference on Mario Williams. He has to run the ball in that situation to wipe out the flag. He would have gained six or seven yards. On RPOs, Caleb’s timing with the ball has to be better. If guys are blocking downfield, he can’t throw. Better decisions are a must against Oregon State.
Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans running back Travis Dye (26) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Fresno State Bulldogs in the second half at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
This was the best position group on the field. Dye’s touchdown run was spectacular. What made it more special was that he was in noticeable pain just minutes earlier. What a tough football player he is.
Austin Jones looked great, too. USC leaned more on the ground game in this one, given the need to run clock and not expose the left tackle spot. The guys answered the call here.
Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans receiver Mario Williams (4) catches the ball 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
With Fresno State sitting back in coverage, it wasn’t as easy to get open. However, guys still made plays in the short passing game. Mario Williams made a tremendous back-shoulder catch on a downfield pass. Jordan Addison made guys miss in tight spaces. Brenden Rice made a contested catch. This was solid and workmanlike — not great, but still good.
Sep 10, 2022; Stanford, California, USA; USC Trojans offensive lineman Bobby Haskins (70) points at wide receiver Jordan Addison (3) after scoring a touchdown during the first quarter against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
The unit looks really good when everyone is healthy, but as we told you throughout the offseason, if an injury occurs to a frontline starter or performer, the backups aren’t as good. We saw this with Mason Murphy filling in for Bobby Haskins at left tackle, with Courtland Ford unavailable. When all the pieces are healthy, this line is great. Saturday, we saw what happens when even one piece is missing. The grade here is not lower because of the injury factor.
Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Fresno State Bulldogs running back Jordan Mims (7) is tackled by Southern California Trojans defensive back Anthony Beavers Jr. (15) in the first half at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The run defense is still a real problem for this group, but the pass rush collected several sacks and blunted Fresno State drives. The D-line also stuffed Fresno State at the goal line in the fourth quarter. This was a tougher, better performance than what we saw against Stanford. It’s still not convincing enough to inspire total confidence against Oregon State. However: If USC’s defensive line can continue to play well in the red zone, that’s huge for the trip to Corvallis and beyond, and you’ll see a higher grade if that part of the equation is replicated versus the Beavers.
Sep 10, 2022; Stanford, California, USA; USC Trojans linebacker Eric Gentry (18) poses for a photo during the third quarter against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
Eric Gentry continues to make lots of important plays: batting down a third-down pass in the red zone, making key tackles to save bigger gains, flying around the field to limit damage. He has been great. The lines of pursuit on running plays are still a problem, but this group is creating havoc for opposing offenses. Let’s do this against Oregon State, but with better run support this time.
Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans players celebrate after a game against the Fresno State Bulldog sat United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
This defense continues to not give up long pass plays. If it can check that box against Oregon State, USC’s chances of winning will improve. Pass defense remains, as a whole, relatively solid. Run support, especially from the safety positions, remains a real concern. You know Oregon State coach Jonathan Smith will try to exploit that. All in all, USC’s defense’s “bend but don’t break” approach hasn’t yet been exposed. The great fear is that Oregon State will fully expose it. Can this unit hold on one more time and secure a huge win? That’s a central question heading into Week 4.
Sep 17, 2022; Los Angeles, California, USA; Southern California Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley reacts after a game against the Fresno State Bulldogs at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The use of the read option was good. It sets up Caleb Williams as a runner, not just a passer. The chess match for Lincoln Riley became more complicated, and he did set up some new possibilities for this offense.
However, Riley has been bothered in the past by a defense which keeps lots of players back in coverage and uses the front four to get a pass rush. This approach worked for Fresno State, and while Riley’s read option plays represented a good adjustment, that change was not immediate. It took him a little time to get there. Adjustments have to be swifter against Oregon State.
Apr 23, 2022; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans defensive coordinator Alex Grinch during the spring game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
We just can’t grade Alex Grinch in light of the Jake Haener injury. If Haener had played a full 60, or even 55, minutes, it would be a different story. USC showed a lot of the same tendencies from previous weeks, but Oregon State won’t have a backup QB on the field. It’s hard to know where this defense stands entering Week 4.