USC vs. Cal four things to watch: Trojans still in Pac-12 title hunt

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 21, 2023: USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams.

The vibes, as the kids say, were off.

Even when USC was undefeated, putting up record-breaking numbers on offense behind a quarterback still favored to win his second Heisman, nothing felt good enough. Coach Lincoln Riley pushed his team to “play on our own terms,” but his attempts to ignore and isolate from outside criticism grew futile. Expectations crept in. Expectations wore the Trojans down. Expectations felt bigger than the wins USC piled up en route to a 6-0 record.

“We let some of the appreciation and fun out of winning get away there in the middle,” Riley said this week. “I’ve seen that happen before, especially this year, especially susceptible to it, and high-level programs like this.”

Read more: Lincoln Riley is shaking off pneumonia but still sure USC can push for Pac-12 title

With their playoff hopes dashed, the No. 24 Trojans will try to find their joy again in chasing a conference championship. USC (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) is still squarely in the Pac-12 title hunt despite a difficult four-game final stretch that includes two top-10 teams.

“We haven’t played to the way we think we can play,” Riley said. “And you persevere through it and you overcome it, the energy and the excitement and the camaraderie that comes from that is so powerful. And that’s the opportunity we got right now.”

Here are four things to watch in USC’s game against the Bears (3-4, 1-3 Pac-12) at California Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m. (Pac-12 Network):

Lloyd's quick hook

USC running back MarShawn Lloyd carries the ball during a loss to Notre Dame on Oct. 14.

USC rushed for 100 yards in one quarter against Utah’s vaunted defense that was giving up just 66.8 rushing yards per game. MarShawn Lloyd eclipsed that number by himself with 74 yards on five carries. Then it was all undone by one fumble.

Despite rushing for 86 yards on seven carries, including a 45-yard touchdown, Lloyd didn’t get another attempt after fumbling with 6:18 remaining in the third quarter. The Trojans had only three carries by a running back for the rest of the game, all by Austin Jones on USC’s first drive of the fourth quarter.

Riley acknowledged he got “a little gun shy” after the fumble, and it gave the coach unwelcome flashbacks to how costly USC’s five turnovers were against Notre Dame. The Trojans could have tied the game on the drive on which Lloyd fumbled. Instead, Utah recovered and scored on the ensuing possession to push the lead to 14.

Lloyd leads the Trojans with 81.3 yards per game and 7.9 yards per carry. Riley said he believes the run game is “starting to click” after the Trojans ran for 145 yards, the most againstthe Utes this season.

“Obviously that’s going to be really important, always is in November ball,” Riley said. “So I gotta do a better job of that. We gotta hang on to it. [Lloyd] will and I will both.”

Read more: Plaschke: In supposed breakthrough USC season, Lincoln Riley has been a bust

New-look line passed first test

USC offensive lineman Mason Murphy (76) and teammates look up to the scoreboard during a win over Stanford on Sept. 10.

Needing more power at right guard after giving up six sacks against Notre Dame, USC coaches tabbed Mason Murphy for the position against Utah as the redshirt sophomore made his first start of the season. With Murphy, who was working primarily at tackle, playing inside, offensive line coach Josh Henson chose former starting right guard Jarrett Kingston to start at right tackle over Michael Tarquin, who had started every game this season. The reshuffled line will remain in place this week, Henson said, as the Trojans cut down their sacks surrendered to three and established a stronger running game that averaged 6.3 yards per carry.

Kingston primarily played left guard at Washington State but said he feels more natural at tackle because the position allows him to use his athleticism in space.

Murphy played in all 14 games last season and started five at tackle. But during the offseason, coaches emphasized the importance of adding strength to his 6-foot-5 frame. Now to be chosen for a position as physical as guard is “just the culmination of hard work,” Murphy said.

“I had a really good summer, got stronger, got bigger, got faster,” he continued, “and I think that just reflects on my team now.”

Read more: 'You keep fighting.' Caleb Williams says USC football isn't letting up after losses

Pressure building on Grinch

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch instructs players during practice in March.
USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch instructs players during practice in March. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

While USC’s frustrations on offense under Riley are new, the defensive disappointment has been a constant. After the Trojans gave up 482 yards to a team that was averaging 322.2, the pressure continues to build on defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

“It's my responsibility to get better and help build this program,” Grinch said. “We've had X number of games in a two-year period of time and it's not where it needs to be yet. And we admit that."

USC is ranked 104th in total defense, giving up 407.6 yards per game. In 2021, the year before Riley and Grinch took over, USC gave up 408.9 yards per game and 6.4 yards per play, which were the worst marks for USC since 1955, when records first became available. The futility was surpassed by last year’s defense that gave up 423.9 yards per game and 6.53 yards per play.

With just nine takeaways, the ball-hawking plays that saved the Trojans last year are gone. Safety Calen Bullock, who sparked a second-half comeback against Utah with a 30-yard interception return for a touchdown, said USC’s goal is to force three turnovers a game. The Trojans have reached that mark only once, against Stanford.

Read more: USC's Jamil Muhammad dedicated his life to being a QB. Now he's taking them down

Safety blanket

USC safety Zion Branch stands on the field before playing Utah on Oct. 21.
USC safety Zion Branch stands on the field before playing Utah on Oct. 21. (Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Zion Branch is “certainly one of the most talented DBs we have in the room,” Riley said last week. After a slow start to the season, the redshirt freshman is starting to prove it on the field.

Branch has 10 tackles in the last two games, including a career-best six against Utah. He teamed with Bear Alexander on a critical fourth-and-one stop in the second quarter as Branch crashed from the free safety position — the deepest in the defensive backfield — to help drop Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes for a one-yard loss.

With redshirt senior Max Williams still working back from an undisclosed injury suffered against Notre Dame, Branch’s role could grow even more as he continues his return from an anterior cruciate ligament injury last year.

“He’s really started to gain confidence back physically from the injury, but I would say the biggest jump for him has been the understanding of our defense,” Riley said before last week’s game.

“Give the kid credit, he’s invested. He invested himself last year while he was rehabilitating from the injury. He’s very detail-oriented, very consistent in his work ethic, and it’s been cool to see him come about.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.