USC defeats Fresno State convincingly to remain unbeaten in the Lincoln Riley era

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP. 17, 2022. USC running back Austin Jones breaks away for a 44-yard gain against Fresno State.
USC running back Austin Jones sprint for a 44-yard gain against Fresno State in the second quarter Saturday at the Coliseum.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

USC quarterback Caleb Williams rushed for two touchdowns and the Trojans’ defense forced more turnovers during a 45-17 win over Fresno State Saturday.

We learned USC has a strong rushing attack, it’s defense can keep forcing turnovers and the Trojans have a punter.

Caleb Williams ran for two scores and overcame some miscues during a 45-17 win over Fresno State Saturday night at the Coliseum, improving to 3-0 during Lincoln Riley’s tenure.

USC’s defense bites back in win over Fresno State that moves No. 7 Trojans to 3-0

USC quarterback Caleb Williams is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams is congratulated by teammates after scoring a touchdown against Fresno State in the first quarter Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

After two weeks of bending and bending and bending some more, it seemed only a matter of time before USC’s discomfiting defense might finally break, leaving Caleb Williams and their electrifying counterparts to bail out the Trojans on their own.

The possibility loomed like a dark cloud over an impossibly bright start to the season for USC, creeping into every conversation about the Trojans’ trajectory, a caveat it had yet to counter.

Those concerns crept back into the Coliseum throughout USC’s 45-17 victory on Saturday night, even as the Trojans kept a largely comfortable lead throughout. They rolled in as Fresno State flew up and down the field for 421 yards and reverberated as Bulldog running backs burst through massive holes in the USC front.

But again, that dark cloud was whisked away before the Trojans found themselves in too dire of straits. This time, however, it wasn’t just Williams who whisked USC out of danger.

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USC shuts down final Fresno State, seals victory

Fresno State backup quarterback Logan Fife led the Bulldogs on a 10-play, 74-yard drive that stalled one yard short of the end zone.

That about summed up the night for the USC defense, that continued to bend deeply at times but often delivered big plays.

USC ran out of the clock to seal a 45-17 win over Fresno State, improving to 3-0 during Lincoln Riley’s tenure.


Denis Lynch hits 41-yard field goal to pad USC’s lead

USC is rolling to the finish line at this point.

Denis Lynch hit a 41-yard field goal with 4:13 left in the game. It helped offset a sloppy drive during which Caleb Williams fumbled and recovered the ball.

USC leads Fresno State 45-17 and is poised to improve to 3-0.


USC stops Fresno State on fourth down

It doesn’t count as a takeaway, but a turnover on downs is just as good for the USC defense.

The Trojans stopped Fresno State on fourth-and-12 as Malik Sherrod bobbled a pass from Logan Fife, giving the offense the ball back on the USC 15-yard line.

Tuli Tuipulotu sacked Fife for a seven-yard loss on third down to set up the long fourth-down attempt. It was USC’s fourth sack of the night and Tuipulotu’s second.

USC leads 42-17 with 9:29 remaining.


Malcolm Epps catches first touchdown of USC career

Tight end Malcolm Epps had an interception at USC before he caught his first touchdown. The Texas transfer now has one of each big play.

Epps caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from Caleb Williams to put the Trojans up 42-17 with 14:44 remaining in the fourth quarter. Epps ended the second half with an interception when he made a surprise appearance on defense during Fresno State’s Hail Mary pass.

Williams, who hasn’t been at his sharpest tonight, is 22-of-34 passing for 245 yards and two touchdowns. His 12 incomplete passes are more than he had in the first two games combined (10). But he has completed passes to eight different receivers.


USC driving as third quarter ends

Caleb Williams completed a 21-yard pass to Tahj Washington on the final play of the third quarter to put USC in the red zone to begin the fourth quarter.

The Trojans, who lead 35-17, will begin the fourth quarter with first-and-goal on the Fresno State five-yard line.

Williams is 21-of-32 passing for 235 yards and one touchdown. He also has two rushing touchdowns. Mario Williams has a team-high 77 receiving yards with six catches.


Fresno State misses 48-yard field goal

Brandon Pili’s third-down sack forced Fresno State to settle for a long field goal try, which went wide left.

The Trojans keep their 35-17 lead with 3:30 remaining as the Fresno State offense is still adjusting to backup quarterback Logan Fife, a sophomore who has played in just one game prior to tonight.

USC has two sacks in the second half.


Travis Dye is A-OK

After leaving the previous drives with trainers by his side, Travis Dye proved he’s feeling just fine as he stepped through at least three would-be tacklers on a 25-yard touchdown run to put the Trojans up 35-17 with 7:13 remaining in the third quarter.

The former Oregon running back has 85 rushing yards with one touchdown to go with 36 receiving yards on three catches.


Backup quarterback? No problem for Fresno State offense

One drive after Jake Haener was carted off the field with a leg injury, backup Logan Fife calmly led a Fresno State touchdown drive to keep the Bulldogs in the game.

A 32-yard rush from Sherrod Malik cut USC’s lead to 28-17 with 9:04 to go in the third. Fife attempted three passes on the five-play drive with completions of eight and 26 yards. The eight-yard pass came on a critical third-and-five that kept the chains moving for the Bulldogs, who were in danger of letting momentum swing fully toward USC.


USC offense cashes in on takeaway

With or without a helmet, Austin Jones can score a touchdown.

The running back increased USC’s lead to 28-10 after a three-yard touchdown run with 11:14 remaining in the third quarter.

Jones’ first trip into the end zone was negated because his helmet got pulled off. Despite the face mask penalty, the play was called dead where his helmet got yanked off. Jones made the next carry count, running up the middle for his team-high third rushing touchdown of the year.

Jones got the red zone carries after running back Travis Dye got hurt earlier on the drive. The Oregon transfer who has 60 rushing yards ad 36 receiving yards today, was slow to get up, but was able to walk to the sideline under his own power after trainers attended to him on the field.


USC’s takeaway train is back on track

The nation’s best ball-hawking defense is back to its old ways.

USC, which entered the game with an astronomical plus-4 turnover margin, has forced takeaways on back-to-back possessions, including a fumble forced and recovered by Soloman Byrd on Fresno State’s first offensive drive of the second half.

Byrd sacked Fresno State quarterback Jake Haener for a five-yard loss and jumped on the loose ball. The Trojans also got a takeaway from tight end Malcolm Epps, who made a special defensive appearance on the last play of the first half to defend a Hail Mary attempt and grabbed an interception.

To make matters worse for Fresno State, Haener was hurt on the sack. The quarterback appeared to get his right leg twisted in the pile and stayed down in significant pain after the play. He was helped by trainers onto an injury cart and driven off the field to applause from the crowd.

USC still leads 21-19 with 12:20 to go in the third.


Fresno State starts second half on offense

The Trojans chose to receive the ball to start the game and now Fresno State gets the opening kick to begin the second half.

The Bulldogs trail 21-10, but were able to stop the potent USC defense on consecutive drives late in the second quarter. USC, which converted three of its first four third-down attempts, is 0-for-four on third downs since. The Trojans are three-for-three on fourth downs, though.


USC ends first half with Hail Mary interception

USC’s first takeaway of the night came on the last play of the first half.

Trojan Malcolm Epps — a 6-foot-6 tight end — came in for Fresno State’s Hail Mary attempt on the final play of the second quarter and came down with an interception, securing a 21-10 USC lead at halftime. Bulldogs quarterback Jake Haener ended the first half with 117 yards on 10-of-17 passing with one touchdown and one interception.

USC’s Caleb Williams is 16-of-26 passing for 143 yards and one touchdown along with two rushing touchdowns. His 10 incompletions equals his combined incompletions from the first two games.

Fresno State has slowed the potent USC offense by dropping seven or eight players into coverage. Williams can dance in the pocket for extended periods of time, but doesn’t have any windows to throw into. Fresno State’s defensive strategy paid off with a coverage sack on third-and-seven, which forced USC’s second consecutive punt. The Trojans have already punted twice today after only punting three times combined in the first two games.

Fresno State has three sacks for 25 yards.


Confirmed: USC does have a punter

We have a rare first-half appearance from USC punter Aadyn Sleep-Dalton.

The Australian punter had only kicked three times this season, all coming in the fourth quarter of games.

Sleep-Dalton was called into duty when the Trojans gave up a sack on third-and-19. Facing fourth-and-33 from the Fresno State 43, Sleep-Dalton pinned the Buldogs at their own five-yard line with a deft 38-yard punt.

Left tackle Bobby Haskins appeared to suffer a left arm injury on the drive and left the game before third-and-19. Mason Murphy came into the game in Haskins’ spot and gave up a sack on the next play, forcing the Trojans to punt. Courtland Ford appears to be out for today’s game despite being dressed in pads on the sideline.


Fresno State finds the end zone

Fresno State’s late-night coffee just kicked in.

The Bulldogs scored their first touchdown of the game with a 39-yard pass from Jake Haener to Erik Brooks. USC now leads 21-10 with 6:30 to go in the second quarter.

Brooks slipped a would-be tackle from USC safety Calen Bullock to complete the five-play, 75-yard drive.

Despite going three-and-out on their opening drive, the Bulldogs are moving the ball well. They’re gaining 8.6 yards per play compared to USC’s 5.7. The big difference is that Fresno State settled for a field goal on its second drive, keeping this a two-score game halfway through the second quarter.


Caleb Williams scores on the ground again

Caleb Williams’ second rushing touchdown of the night has USC up 21-3 with 8:04 remaining in the second quarter.

The Trojans appeared to score on the previous play, but Jordan Addison was ruled down out of bounds at the half-yard line. Williams had no problem finishing the drive on the next play, plowing forward for the score.

Although it didn’t result in a touchdown, Mario Williams provided a key block on Addison’s five-yard catch, showing USC’s commitment to physicality on both sides of the ball.

The Trojans needed two fourth-down conversions on the drive.

Caleb Williams dumped a quick pass over the middle to Travis Dye for a six-yard gain on fourth-and-four from the Fresno State 40-yard line to move the chains. Dye has been active in the first half, rushing for 48 yards on five carries and grabbing three catches for 36 receiving yards.

The quarterback kept it himself on the next fourth-down opportunity, rushing for 11 yards on fourth-and-one after faking the handoff to Dye. Caleb Williams is 15-for-24 passing for 132 yards and one touchdown with 26 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns.


Fresno State gets on the board

Fresno State came close to a touchdown but instead settled for a 23-yard field goal after Jake Haener’s third-down throw to the end zone was broken up by Eric Gentry.

USC leads 14-3 with 14:46 left in the second quarter after Fresno State’s kick.


Fresno State driving as first quarter ends

The Fresno State offense is threatening with third-and-goal from the USC five-yard line at the end of the first quarter.

The Bulldogs have not faced a third down on this drive, which started on their own 25-yard line.

USC, which leads 14-0, is outgaining Fresno State 138-71, but the Bulldogs have shown some potential on the ground, averaging 8.8 yards per rush attempt (44 yards on five carries).

USC is 106th in the country in rush defense, allowing 183.5 yards per game.


Caleb Williams calls his own number

Get a quarterback who can do both.

After throwing for the opening score, Caleb Williams kept the ball for an eight-yard rushing touchdown. The quarterback’s first rushing touchdown of the season puts USC up 14-0 with 3:35 remaining in the first quarter.

Compared to last week’s first half against Stanford when the Trojans didn’t face a third down until the last drive of the second quarter, tonight’s offense looks relatively mortal. But it’s no less effective as USC has scored touchdowns on both of its drives, each methodical 12-play marches.

Not only did Williams show his dual-threat capability in the red zone, but he kept the drive alive on fourth-and-two by scrambling for four yards. The quarterback is 10-for-16 passing for 81 yards and one touchdown with 13 rushing yards and another score.


Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison open game with a touchdown

Name a more iconic duo.

Caleb Williams and Jordan Addison connected for a two-yard touchdown pass on USC’s opening drive to take a 7-0 lead with 10:05 to go in the first quarter.

Williams has now thrown five of his six touchdowns this season to Addison, who had three catches for 26 yards on the opening 12-play, 83-yard drive. Williams went five-for-eight for 40 yards.

Running back Travis Dye paced the Trojans on the ground with 34 yards on three carries.

The Trojans got some help on third-and-seven on the Fresno State 12-yard line as Fresno State’s Bralyn Luz was called for pass interference on Jordan Addison. Addison caught his first touchdown of the game on the very next play.

As a personnel note, Virginia transfer Bobby Haskins got the starting nod at left tackle after Courtland Ford left last week’s win against Stanford with a lower leg injury.

Haskins and Ford were splitting reps at left tackle during the first two weeks, but Ford started the previous games. Ford was seen on the sideline in full uniform during warmups.


USC wins coin toss

Hello, this is Thuc Nhi Nguyen. I’m piloting tonight’s late-night live blog as USC faces Fresno State at the Coliseum in a classic Pac-12 After Dark matchup.

The Trojans won the coin toss and opted to receive the opening kickoff. USC is trying to improve to 3-0. Fresno State, which is no stranger to an upset against an L.A. team (ask UCLA about it), is 1-1 this season under head coach Jeff Tedford.


Offensive lineman Brett Neilon is USC football’s ‘Mr. Steady’

USC offensive lineman Brett Neilon talks with reporters during media day
USC lineman Brett Neilon has been a steady and reliable leader for the Trojans.
(Wesley Lapointe / Los Angeles Times)

Win or lose — and, in recent years, it’s mostly been the latter — Brett Neilon never wavered. The offensive lineman dutifully and consistently met with reporters after each game, absorbing questions about the latest blowout and trying to make sense of the inexplicable fall of Trojans football.

Frustrations mounted. His mother, Cora, noticed how deflated he got. But Neilon still nodded in appreciation after each game.

There’s a reason offensive line coach Josh Henson calls the four-year starting center “Mr. Steady.”

In his final season with the Trojans, Neilon hopes to make the last turn of his roller-coaster college career a great one.

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How Jordan Addison’s cornerback experience sets him apart as USC’s top receiver

USC wide receiver Jordan Addison breaks away from Rice defensive back Sean Fresch.
USC wide receiver Jordan Addison breaks away from Rice defensive back Sean Fresch to score a touchdown during the Trojans’ season opener on Sept. 3.
(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

It took just one step for Jordan Addison to know he had the upper hand.

The signs were there in the moments before the USC wideout’s dazzling 75-yard score last week, if you knew where to find them. First, there was the single deep Stanford safety, expected to deter USC quarterback Caleb Williams from chucking it downfield to the best deep-ball receiver in college football. Addison knew there was no need to worry; the safety would surely creep up to cover the underneath route in the slot, leaving plenty of open grass behind him.

The most crucial tell came from the cornerback across from Addison. The Trojans’ top receiver saw he was lined up on his outside shoulder, preparing for man coverage. So Addison obliged his preference, taking off toward his inside shoulder, before bursting into hyper drive on a deep post. There was no stopping him by that point.

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Lincoln Riley trusts corner Mekhi Blackmon. ‘We like him matched up against anybody’

USC cornerback Mekhi Blackmon warms up during practice.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Mekhi Blackmon had seen the play before and knew how to respond.

Two years earlier, as a cornerback for Colorado, Stanford twice tested Blackmon on the same jump-ball play call; both times he’d successfully batted the pass down. This time, as a senior corner at USC, he would do one better.

Blackmon faced regular tests in USC’s 41-28 victory over Stanford this past Saturday, proving his place as the Trojans’ top corner as Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee targeted him 10 times.

The most ill-advised of those attempts, the one Blackmon recognized ahead of time, came at a critical early juncture Saturday. Stanford had just mounted a seven-minute, 13-play drive, rolling over the Trojans’ defense with relative ease. Faced with a fourth-and-goal, Blackmon clung to 6-foot-3 Cardinal wideout Elijah Higgins, who set up in the end zone, awaiting a familiar jump ball from McKee.

“I anticipated the same thing coming,” Blackmon said, “and when he threw, I was able to tip it up.”

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Caleb Williams Heisman hype surging: Takeaways from USC’s win over Stanford

USC quarterback Caleb Williams hands the ball off to running back Travis Dye against Stanford on Sept. 10.
(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

PALO ALTO — When the negatives about USC’s 41-28 win over Stanford snuck in Lincoln Riley’s head — the sluggish second-half offense, getting gashed by Stanford’s running game, a missed field goal — the coach warded them off by remembering where this team came from.

“Look at 12 months ago,” he said repeatedly.

On this same weekend in last year, USC got rolled by Stanford at the Coliseum. It cost the Trojans their coach. It upended the entire season. It led to Riley’s eventual hire.

From those ashes, the Trojans built a team that looked at times Saturday like a juggernaut on offense and won at Stanford for the first time since 2014.

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All gas and no brakes? Three things to watch for in USC vs. Fresno State

USC players take the field before their win over Stanford on Sept. 10.
USC players take the field before their win over Stanford on Sept. 10. The Trojans look to improve to 3-0 on the season Saturday against Fresno State at the Coliseum.
(Godofredo A. Vásquez / Associated Press)

It doesn’t take a math whiz to know USC’s rate of turnovers forced is not sustainable. With four takeaways in each of its first two games — and zero turnovers lost — USC’s turnover margin sits atop all of college football. No team in recent history has kept up a plus-two pace in turnover margin, let alone plus-four.

Regression is coming. But for now, Alex Grinch isn’t about to let math get in the way of the mentality he’s trying to instill.

“The messaging is 100% we control it 100% of the time, and we don’t let truth get in the way,” the USC defensive coordinator said with a grin.

So Grinch really thinks USC can maintain this breakneck pace?

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