It was supposed to be Lincoln Riley’s first true test. A new trip to face a new opponent in a conference still entirely unfamiliar to USC’s new coach. The circumstances practically begged for a rude awakening, so much so that Riley spent part of this past week with a rollout bed at the ready in his office.
But when that test finally came Saturday at Stanford, USC could kick its feet up on the desk, as the right answers came rolling out one after another in a 41-28 romp over Stanford that wasn’t as close as the final score implied.
It wasn’t just that USC (2-0, 1-0) aced its first Pac-12 exam, winning on the road at Stanford (1-1, 0-1) for the first time since 2014. Its high-flying offense set the early curve in the conference — and quite possibly for all of college football — with another jaw-dropping performance that might vault the Trojans toward the edge of the College Football Playoff conversation.
It was a stark turn from where USC stood a year ago, when it fired its coach after an embarrassing loss to Stanford. Even Riley would call attention to that transformation Saturday, while pointing out how far USC still had to go.
“Our best football is a long ways away from where we are right now,” Riley said.
Still, USC was good enough Saturday that it hardly mattered that its offense lost focus in the second half or that its defense gave up 441 total yards, allowing Stanford to spend much of the game marching up and down the field. That the Trojans gave up 221 yards on the ground — 88 to Stanford lead back E.J. Smith — would be a problem for another night, one when their opponent finds itself at least within sniffing distance.
Caleb Williams saw to it Saturday that Stanford never got that close.
The quarterback led USC on five touchdown drives to open the game, none of which included a single third-down attempt. When Stanford led a 93-yard drive to respond to USC’s initial onslaught, Williams responded by sending a deep ball soaring 75 yards in the direction of Jordan Addison, who caught it in stride, then shook off a defender for the second of his two touchdowns.
“We got the right look at the right time,” Williams said.
It was tempting to think a week ago that Williams’ wondrous debut might’ve been because of an inferior opponent. But he quickly dispatched that theory, slicing and dicing Stanford’s defense at every level. He finished 20 of 27 for 341 yards and four touchdowns in a performance that should firmly put him atop early Heisman Trophy lists as several other top-flight quarterbacks faltered Saturday.
“With this offense, with this team, we have an unlimited ceiling I feel like,” said running back Travis Dye, who led USC with 105 yards rushing.
In its first trip of the Riley era, it certainly seemed that way for USC’s offense, which, at times, seemed to score too quickly for its defense to catch its breath.
If there were any concerns to be found Saturday, it came on that end, where the Trojans looked at least mortal.
USC’s defense still forced four turnovers, tying last week’s impressive mark and securing the nation’s top spot in turnover margin for the time being. It still made key stops when necessary and held Stanford to only 122 yards after halftime, albeit well after USC had established a healthy lead.
But nothing was comfortable about how often the Trojans continued to bend early on that side of the ball, even if the defense ultimately refused to break.
“There are too many inconsistencies,” Riley said.
It didn’t hurt that the defense picked up right where it left off last week, watching a tipped pass fortuitously wobble in the direction of a Trojans defensive back. USC safety Max Williams would take the interception 34 yards into Stanford territory, where Caleb Williams needed only four plays to find tight end Lake McRee for the Trojans’ first score.
The first true test of mettle for USC’s defense would come on the next possession, a methodical 13-play drive that left Stanford with a fourth and goal from the two-yard line. The Trojans had already held strong on four straight plays only to have to hold tight on a fifth, thanks to a late offsides penalty.
So Stanford quarterback Tanner McKee took to the air, lofting an ill-advised jump ball in the direction of USC corner Mekhi Blackmon, who leaped in front of a larger receiver and tipped the ball to himself for a second interception.
The goal-line stand would set a crucial tone, one that Caleb Williams would carry all the way down the field on a subsequent 83-yard drive. Two drives later, the defense made a stand again, as Max Williams forced Smith to fumble at the two, where USC would start yet another scoring drive.
“The two red-zone turnovers were huge at that point,” Riley said.
But by then, USC and its offense were already well in control, rolling past the first Pac-12 challenge with ease and leaving some to wonder if a more taxing test might someday present itself.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.