If USC is going to win any significant number of games this season, it’s going to do so largely on the strength of its offense. That theme — offense leading the Trojans to victory — is officially under way.
USC held its Spring Game at the Coliseum Saturday afternoon, the culmination of its first spring camp under head coach Lincoln Riley. In an atypical offense vs. defense format — due to an insufficient number of available players to field two full teams — the Trojans’ offense “won” 34-30.
Stakes obviously low as they were, that final score is unimportant. What mattered more were the glimpses of the team that USC will trot out this fall in Riley’s inaugural season in Los Angeles.
Fans got their first extended look at sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams following his February transfer from Oklahoma to USC, and the potential 2022 Heisman candidate ensured his first impression was good: Williams went a perfect 9-for-9 with 90 yards across his first two drives.
“Nah, I don’t really get nervous,” Williams said when asked about playing in front of USC fans for the first time. “It was awesome coming out here and getting in front of a couple fans, having ESPN and all of that, showing the public what we’re gonna be. And we’re not even close to what we’re actually gonna be. So it was awesome.”
Williams capped off those two drives with 5- and 9-yard touchdowns to sophomore receiver Mario Williams, building off a connection the two (unrelated) Williamses formed in their freshman season together at Oklahoma.
But Williams’ offense hit somewhat of a wall in the second half, as the opposing defensive unit forced punts on its last three drives of the game. Williams finished a total of 10-for-12 with 98 yards, those two touchdowns and no interceptions.
“Beginning was solid. The end, not so solid,” he said of his performance. “We came out firing in the first half, and defense responded. So that’s a good sign as always. As an offense, though, we gotta get better. Myself, also. Pushing the guys, making sure that we’re all on point, locked in, focused.”
Redshirt freshman quarterback Miller Moss, on the contrary, enjoyed his fair share of success in the second half as Williams’ unit slowed down. Moss connected with redshirt junior receiver Kyle Ford amid tight coverage for a 48-yard touchdown in the first play after the break.
“Once I saw it was a one-on-one, I was like ‘Ohhh, we’re going after him,’” Moss said. “Kyle made a heck of a play. So I was definitely happy with that one.”
On his next drive, Moss hit redshirt freshman receiver Kyron Ware-Hudson, who hauled it in near the sideline despite being smothered by a defender. Moss finished 15-of-20 with 169 yards, a touchdown and no picks.
“I felt good,” Moss said. “I think we started a little bit slow on the first drive [which ended in an impressive 55-yard field goal by redshirt senior Alex Stadthaus] but kinda picked up after that. I was really happy with how the guys made plays, how we blocked up front. Yeah, I felt like it was good.”
Riley hasn’t yet named a starter for the upcoming season and likely won’t officially do so until the fall, but Williams figures to have that role all but locked up, barring anything unforeseen. Still, Moss gives the Trojans some much-needed depth at the position, and the Spring Game was another example of the versatility USC will boast under center.
“They both played within the system, which is what you want them to do, and on some of the unscheduled plays the decision-making was pretty sound,” Riley said. “I’ve been proud of both of their progress. I think they’ve gotten both better throughout the spring.”
Moss and Williams spread the ball around through the air, as nine different players had multiple receptions — a list that doesn’t include Ford, whose 48 yards (all on the touchdown) led the team.
The Trojans also presented a balanced rushing attack, featuring redshirt senior Oregon transfer Travis Dye, senior Stanford transfer Austin Jones, redshirt junior Darwin Barlow and even redshirt senior wide receiver Brandon Outlaw.
Barlow led the group with 4.6 yards per carry while also adding 26 receiving yards. Jones’ 6-yard touchdown in the second half was the only rushing score of the day for USC, and Dye led the unit overall in carries (seven) and rushing yards (27).
“It was a little shock to me, ‘cause I was getting flashbacks to when I was here before [with Oregon]. But it’s so much nicer being in this jersey, being in this Coliseum, with this type of energy, these type of fans. You can’t match it in college football,” Dye said. “I think [the running backs] played pretty good … We have a few things to clean up still, but that’s what practice is for.”
USC’s defensive front presented some issues for the rushing attack and the quarterbacks. Redshirt senior lineman Nick Figueroa, redshirt sophomore edge rusher Romello Height and redshirt freshman inside linebacker Julien Simon each earned a sack, and junior defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu was able to consistently bring pressure in the trenches as well.
That was a demonstration of the physicality apparent on Saturday, an element of the Spring Game that USC has lacked in recent years.
“I thought the day was very representative of how the entire spring has gone,” Riley said. “Pretty physical on both sides of the football, some big plays on both sides. Typically, sides — if something didn’t go their way — tended to rebound, so pretty back and forth on the day. And that’s, I would say, very typical of this spring.”
This year’s Spring Game carried significantly more buzz than it had in recent years, and despite the low stakes, improvised scoring format and shortened duration (the team just played one half of football), the opportunity to see the new-look Trojans for the first time was one that USC fans capitalized on. The announced attendance at the Coliseum was 33,427 — the most since USC started tracking Spring Game attendance in the late 1990s.
“Today was a great example of the progress that’s been made in a really short time,” Riley said. “Lot of hard work, lot of people within the walls of our football program, every single person. Lot of hard work by our administration to help create a great atmosphere today, and our fans responded.
“Obviously this is just the beginning, this is just a step, but we’re really excited about our progress. And getting the opportunity to do it today and put it on display for our fans, put it on display really for the whole country on a national broadcast, was a great step for us. There’s obviously a lot of big steps left to go, but this group’s gonna be ready for them.”