After two weeks of bending and bending and bending, it seemed only a matter of time before USC’s pesky defense finally broke, leaving Caleb Williams and their electrifying counterparts to save the Trojans on their own.
The possibility loomed like a dark cloud over an incredibly bright start to the season for USC, creeping into every conversation about the Trojans’ trajectory, a caveat it had yet to face.
Those concerns returned to the Coliseum during USC’s 45-17 victory Saturday night, even though the Trojans held a very comfortable lead throughout. They rolled as Fresno State rolled up and down the field for 421 yards and echoed as Bulldog backs burst through huge holes in the USC front.
But again, this dark cloud was removed before the Trojans were in a very dire position. This time, however, it wasn’t just Williams who got USC out of harm’s way.
This time, USC’s defense wouldn’t need four releases to do its job.
The Trojans added two more turnovers early in the season. But their most encouraging moments came in the most crucial moments Saturday, when Fresno State threatened to blow the game open.
Twice in the second half, the Bulldogs looked poised to get back into the game, only to be stymied by big plays from USC’s defense.
The first came from rush end Solomon Byrd, who burst onto the edge on the first possession of the second half and knocked Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener to the ground, forcing a sack that would have ejected Haener from the game.
Three plays later, the Trojans scored on a 23-yard run by Travis Dye, extending their lead to 18.
From there, USC’s defense allowed just one score to a Fresno State offense that came into Saturday as one of the most productive in college football through two weeks. He stopped a drive with a third sack by Brandon Pili and another by Tuli Tuipulotu. He even added a final goal-line stand at the one-yard line for good measure.
It was far from perfect on that end. But as USC cruised to its third straight win to open its season, it could rest easy knowing its defense wasn’t close to breaking even. Not yet, at least.
Another strong performance from Williams certainly helped matters. The quarterback finished with 284 yards and two touchdowns through the air, while adding two more on the ground. The Trojans also boasted two 100-yard rushers, as Travis Dye and Austin Jones rolled over the Fresno front, adding a touchdown apiece.
The defense had the benefit of another strong start from those playmakers, as USC scored touchdowns on each of its first three possessions for the third straight week.
Just like last week — and the week before that — USC took the field on its opening drive and made an early statement. Dye led the Trojans’ offense on the ground, gaining 42 yards on his first four carries. Williams completed two tightly covered passes to convert two third-and-longs on USC’s first possession before finding Jordan Addison in the end zone for a three-yard score, Addison’s fifth in just nine quarters for USC.
Williams capped the Trojans’ next drive with a touchdown, faking a handoff before scampering eight yards to give USC an early 14-point lead and Williams’ first rushing score of the season. He added another on the next possession, giving the USC quarterback his first multi-scoring game on the ground.
But the most impressive statement came on Fresno State’s first drive, as USC’s defense forced an immediate three-and-out, setting a strong tone it hoped would carry the rest of the night.
Instead, it held the entire possession as Fresno State took just five plays on its next drive to find its way into the red zone. It wouldn’t go much further than that, as USC’s defense once again stood tall with its back to the end zone, stopping the Bulldogs on three straight plays inside the 10 to force a field goal.
The defense wouldn’t fare so well on the next drive, as Fresno State again drove down the field, this time finding the end zone with less than 90 seconds left.
Two plays later, USC found itself right back in the red zone.
This time, he was unable to convert as Williams struggled to find precious life in the pocket before being sacked out of bounds.
But USC returned to its high-flying self after halftime, while its defense did everything it could to hang on.
This time, the Trojans were sure to hang tight.
Bobby Haskins starts
After two straight Saturdays split between their top two tackles, USC stuck largely with one left tackle against Fresno State as Bobby Haskins stepped in for the injured Cortland Ford as the full-time blindside protector.
Ford suited up on Saturday but ultimately sat out as he continues to recover from an injured ankle.
It looked like USC might also lose Haskins as the senior tackle briefly left the game in the second quarter, clutching his left shoulder.
Redshirt freshman Mason Murphy took his place and proceeded to make the shutout in his first game. On the next drive, Haskins came back.
Ford should be back soon enough. Whether he will replace Haskins when he does remains to be seen.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.