Less than two minutes remained on the clock — a comfortable, four-touchdown win over Fresno State long ago secured — but as USC lined up for one final stand with its back against the end zone last Saturday, no one seemed to have told its defense.
Instead of coasting to the finish line, USC mounted one of its strongest defensive stands of the season, stopping three straight rushes inside the two-yard-line to force a turnover on downs. Afterward, Trojans coach Lincoln Riley called it his favorite sequence of the game.
“That’s what we’re about,” Riley said. “No matter who thinks the game is over, it all matters to us. If you’re going to be a champion, it’s gotta all matter. For our guys to get that stop right there at the end to close the game was as meaningful as anything that happened tonight.”
A similar effort near the goal line could prove especially meaningful Saturday, when USC meets Oregon State in Corvallis for a crucial early Pac-12 tilt. The Beavers have scored on all 14 red-zone trips this season. Only four schools (Michigan, Clemson, Vanderbilt and Tennessee) have more red-zone conversions, while still boasting a perfect conversion rate.
On account of their defense’s struggles between the 20s, the Trojans already have weathered 13 trips into the red zone. But while opposing offenses have had no trouble getting there, USC’s effort inside the 20s has kept them from accomplishing much when they do.
Just seven of those 13 trips (54%) have resulted in points, a rate that sets USC apart as one of the top red-zone defenses in college football through three games. No other defense that’s faced double-digit red-zone trips has held opponents to anything lower than a 60% success rate.
That probably isn’t sustainable, especially against an offense such as Oregon State's, which boasts one of the better rushing attacks in the conference.
“It’s just battling, not giving in, having the awareness about you to make them run another play,” USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “There’s no magic. You sometimes wish there was, but give our guys credit, we’ve held up in situations so far. But they’re a little different animal in the red zone this week.”
It starts with Oregon State’s rushing attack. The Beavers lead the Pac-12 — and rank eighth in the nation — with 11 rushing touchdowns through three games. The threat of the run sets up the perfect play-action scenario for quarterback Chance Nolan, who threw four touchdowns against USC in a dominant win for Oregon State last season.
“They’ve been efficient but we have too,” Riley said about the red zone. “We’ve been stingy against the run down there. We’ve defended well. We’ve gotten turnovers. We’ve gotten fourth-down stops. Both teams have done the things you need to do well, and it’s going to be strength versus strength. There will be some moments like that in this football game, and they’ll be pivotal moments.”
Oregon State won’t be able to turn to tight end Luke Musgrave in those moments. The Beavers top receiver through two games will miss the game because of an injury.
But Oregon State is likely to once again use linebacker Jack Colletto in short-yardage situations around the goal line. Colletto already has three touchdowns this season in six carries.
The best weapon against Oregon State’s red-zone offense might be to keep them out of the red zone. But that part has been the problem for USC’s defense this season.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.