LOS ANGELES – There was never cause for concern. A one-game sample size is too small to say whether or not a performance is an issue or an aberration.
But entering No. 6 USC’s game against Arizona State Saturday night, eyes were on the offense to see if it would return to its high-flying ways or lean further into the regression it showed last week against Oregon State.
The Trojans (5-0, 3-0 in Pac-12) found their groove again back at the Coliseum, riding a strong rebound performance by quarterback Caleb Williams to a 42-25 win over Arizona State (1-4, 0-2).
Williams was back to his precise self, completing 27 of 37 passes for 348 yards and three touchdowns. He rushed eight times for 44 yards and used his feet to escape all-encompassing pressure from the ASU defense.
After a stuffed run, a false start and a bobbled snap to open the game, the offense began moving. Head coach Lincoln Riley called for short and intermediate plays to get Williams comfortable. It worked, with Williams completing his first five passes for 66 yards and sneaking into the end zone for a touchdown.
Once he was warm, Riley was able to open the playbook and allow Williams to cook. On the second drive, he rolled right at the goal line and found Mario Williams, who had faked a screen block, open in the end zone for a second score.
When an illegal block in the back — one of six USC penalties in the first half — pinned USC at its own 6 to start the next drive, Caleb Williams calmly led a 10-play touchdown drive.
The score was a lofted pass to tight end Malcolm Epps. But the play of the drive came at the opposite goal line, when Williams was was nearly sacked for a safety. He avoided the tackle, a common first-half theme, then floated up a ball that looked destined to be intercepted. But it sailed over a defender’s hands to Jordan Addison for a first down.
It was necessary for the USC offense to perform at this level, because the defense likewise erased memories of last week’s performance in Corvallis. The Trojans were back to being gashed on the regular, seeing the hapless Sun Devils averaged 8.1 yards per play in the first half.
But the second half was a different story, with USC employing pressure to limit Arizona State to four yards and one first down in the first three drives after halftime.
And when the offense did the need the defense to bail out a mistake, it stepped up.
Williams made his first true mistake of the season, trying to force a throw to Addison despite tight double coverage in the end zone. Instead, it was defensive back Timarcus Davis who came down with it.
It marked the first turnover of the season for USC, the last team in the country to record one after 14 straight takeaways to start the year.
But the defense came through with a quick three-and-out, corner Mekhi Blackmon making a third-down pass breakup on a downfield attempt.
It set up a 50-yard touchdown drive for the Trojans. Williams extended the drive with a 14-yard bullet to Brenden Rice on third-and-14 before Travis Dye punched it in from two yards out for his first of two touchdowns.