Lincoln Riley delivers halftime magic: Takeaways from USC’s win over Arizona State

Calen Bullock runs for USC as coaches, teammates and fans cheer
USC strong safety Calen Bullock returns an interception against Arizona State during the fourth quarter at the Coliseum on Saturday night.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Caleb Williams punctuated his postgame press conference with a final reminder. The quarterback likes to get in the last word.

“5-0,” he said, rising from the table and pumping his fist after USC’s 42-25 win over Arizona State on Saturday at the Coliseum.

USC is 5-0 (3-0 Pac-12 Conference) for the first time since 2020 and the fourth time in the past 27 years after turning a close game at halftime into a comfortable home win. Yet the No. 6 Trojans remain unimpressed. When asked of what the unblemished record means to the team, tight end Malcolm Epps didn’t hesitate.


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“Absolutely nothing,” he said after he caught a four-yard touchdown in the win. “Not a thing.”

Here are three takeaways from the win:

Halftime magic

Lincoln Riley points as he talks on the sideline with Caleb Williams
USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with quarterback Caleb Williams on the sideline during the third quarter of the Trojans’ win over Arizona State at the Coliseum on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Coach Lincoln Riley admitted USC didn’t quite have the “edge we’re used to playing with” in the first half. The Trojans went into halftime with a four-point lead and gave up 17 points to an offense that entered Saturday averaging 22.8 points per game.

But as is becoming a signature for this team, the third quarter shifted the game in USC’s favor quickly. The Trojans averaged 7.2 yards per play and scored the quarter’s only touchdown while keeping Arizona State (1-4, 0-2) to just 14 yards and minus-three rushing yards during the frame.

Including Saturdays’ 7-0 advantage, the Trojans are outscoring opponents 55-7 in the third quarter of games this year.

“I think Coach Riley’s like Steve Kerr,” Epps said, referencing the Golden State Warriors’ famous third-quarter dominance. “It’s nothing new, he just came in and said, ‘Hey, we’re not playing like the Trojans.’ Simple. Take the challenge, he challenges us all the time and we accept the challenge, and we did what we were supposed to do.”

No comfort on defense

USC's Korey Foreman flushes Arizona State's Emory Jones out of the pocket
USC defensive lineman Korey Foreman flushes Arizona State quarterback Emory Jones out of the pocket during the first quarter at the Coliseum on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Without takeaways to take the sting out of allowing explosive plays and long drives, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said he was “disappointed in how we played for the bulk of the night.”

Arizona State, which was the second-worst offense in the Pac-12 by yardage and scoring entering the game, finished with 331 yards, 218 of which came in the first half. The nation’s best ball-hawking defense didn’t get its first takeaway until the final 33 seconds of the game when Calen Bullock swooped in for his pick.

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USC didn’t sack ASU quarterback Emory Jones in the first half but got to him five times in the second half. Part of it was the additional rushers Grinch sent toward the Florida transfer because the coach said he was displeased with USC’s zone defense, which was struggling to recreate the same tipped passes and takeaways USC has generated every game this season.

Jones had a season-high 23 completed passes on 32 attempts with 243 yards and one touchdown.

Offensive shuffle

USC's Caleb Williams throws the ball.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws downfield under pressure from Arizona State’s defense at the Coliseum on Saturday.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Williams proved last week’s struggles were just a one-off bad night as he completed 27 of 37 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns while throwing his first interception of the season. For much of the game, he also led the Trojans in rushing, which is not an achievement the quarterback cherishes.

Williams has previously said he prefers to distribute the ball to his playmakers but will run if needed. On Saturday, it was necessary as pass protection broke down repeatedly. Williams was only sacked once, saving his teammates with his slippery dual-threat ability. He shook off numerous sacks and finished with 52 rushing yards on eight carries with one touchdown, scored on a quarterback sneak.

Riley gave the pass protection the lukewarm review of “OK,” citing several missed blitzes and missed blocks from running backs.

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“Just kind how it plays out sometimes,” Riley said. “They’re a good front. We knew that coming in, we were going to get challenged. Again, the flip side of it is, with the number of offensive possessions the offense had, you don’t score that many points and play that efficiently if you play bad up front.”

Part of Saturday’s breakdowns could be attributed to personnel changes. Redshirt junior Gino Quinones made his first career start at right guard in place for team captain Justin Dedich. Dedich is “a little banged up,” Riley said, and will continue to be evaluated. Courtland Ford also returned to the left tackle rotation after missing the last two games with an ankle injury, splitting time with Bobby Haskins.