What a difference a year makes, no? USC fired Clay Helton following a 42-28 drubbing by Stanford, and this year USC returned the favor by hammering Stanford 41-28 last Saturday en route to becoming one of the most explosive and efficient football teams in the nation. The differences are many, but the main one is new Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley and everything he brought with him. Riley's talent impressive talent infusion includes Jordan Addison, the Pitt transfer who is the best wide receiver in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus.
Up next is an equally explosive and efficient offense in Fresno State. Both teams enter the game from a position of strength, even if the Bulldogs are coming off a loss. They led Oregon State by as many as nine points in the second half last weekend at home before the Beavers, who are much improved under head coach Jonathan Smith and could be a factor in the Pac-12 this season, rallied to win it on a touchdown run on the final play of the game. USC should be well aware that this Fresno State team is no "Group of 5 pushover."
These Bulldogs are a quality football team and are absolutely going to be stepping on the gas the whole game. Fans in Fresno would rather see the Bulldogs throw everything at USC and fail than play timidly and lose a game in that fashion. They tend to be hopeless romantics and pragmatic at the same time. Confident but completely aware that this is not Helton's team they’ll be playing. So now it's time for the Trojans to show just how different they are under Riley.
Fresno State at No. 7 USC
When Fresno State Has the Ball
Quarterback Jake Haener is no stranger to USC, and pressure hasn’t seemed to bother him so far. I guess you could harp on the number of touchdowns (just one) he threw last week against Oregon State if you wanted, but you also need to give him credit for his 360-yard performance on 29 completions with no interceptions. His supporting cast showed up too, with Jordan Mims running for 122 yards and two scores and Cal transfer Nikko Remigio posting 100 receiving yards on six catches. So the offense has the trigger man and the weapons necessary to move the chains and put points on the scoreboard.
For USC, the defense has to at least make Haener work through his progressions instead of giving him wide-open targets to throw to. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's bend-but-don't-break approach has worked thus far. The Trojans lead the nation with eight takeaways, which is even more impressive considering the offense has yet to turn it over. Assuming that side of the ball can maintain its mistake-free play that gives the defense a little more margin for error, that could allow for Grinch to take more risks when it comes to dialing up pressure to try and rattle Haener and force him into making a mistake or two.
When USC Has the Ball
What do you say about the Trojans and their new-look offense at this point? They just need to keep doing what they've been doing and that should be more than enough to outscore Fresno State. Quarterback Caleb Williams is working himself into various different award conversations following his 341-yard, four-TD dissection of Stanford. Addison is doing his thing, ranking in the top 25 nationally in the three main receiving categories, but he's far from the only one catching passes and racking up the YAC. Collectively, USC is averaging 14.9 yards per reception.
But it hasn't been a pass-happy approach either. The Trojans are averaging 5.9 yards per carry with transfers Travis Dye (Oregon) and Austin Jones (Stanford) both doing better than that. USC needs to continue to pick up the pace on the offense and open things up schematically. This unit has already made significant strides, but now it's time for the offense to take that next step and show that it can adapt and not get stagnant. That was something that Helton's team never could seem to accomplish, so this is another way in which Riley can prove his worth and justify the major investment and commitment the school made to him to lure him from Oklahoma.
USC has had incredible fumble and turnover luck through the first two games. Not a single bounce has gone against the Trojans and none of their tipped passes or overthrown balls have come back to haunt them. You have to wonder how long that can last without lulls here and there. Even the best teams have "those games" over the course of a season, and even though "due" isn’t a thing in college football or statistics, for that matter, it feels like USC is due for a shootout-style game. Fresno State is talented enough and familiar enough to be that team.
The Trojans should be able to put this game away with a key stop here and there. It wouldn't surprise me if this game played out like the 2005 contest (USC won 50-42). These Bulldogs have that type of talent. Grinch’s defenses are aggressive enough to force a turnover, probably two. If USC can accomplish that and the offense can continue to grow, this game should end up as one of those closer-than-score-would-suggest contests when all is said and done.
Prediction: USC 46, Fresno State 38
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— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.
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