A strong ground game and key defensive stands propel USC football to comfortable home win over Fresno State

The Trojans churned out 274 yards on the ground in their most complete effort of the season.

USC running back Travis Dye breaks a tackle.

Throughout the week, the emphasis for the No. 7 USC Trojans has been to put together a more complete football game. Following a win at Stanford last weekend where USC was outscored 14-6 in the second half, head coach Lincoln Riley expressed a desire for his team to play its best football for the full 60 minutes.

The Trojans responded to Riley’s challenge in a big way on Saturday night, putting together a 45-17 rout over the Fresno State Bulldogs at the Coliseum.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Trojans continued to produce points at a staggering rate. The 45-point performance from the offense marks three consecutive weeks that USC has put up at least 40 points, the first time that has happened since 2016. Seven of their nine offensive drives, excluding the final drive in which USC just ran out the game clock, resulted in points, and six resulted in touchdowns.

To begin the game, the Trojans put together touchdown drives of 83, 65 and 83 yards on their first three possessions. USC was not quite as effective at getting into third-and-short situations, but moved the sticks on three separate third down plays of at least seven yards on those drives.

Riley was not afraid to go for it on fourth down either. The Trojans’ head coach attempted three fourth down conversions in the first half, and succeeded on all three, including a crucial fourth-and-one pickup on a scramble to the outside from sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams.

“I was hoping we wouldn’t be in that many [fourth downs],” Riley said postgame. “You just make those decisions and go. You never know how the game is going to play out. The fun thing about calling plays when you’re the head coach is you’ve got the full team in mind when you do it. I felt like the confidence defensively, was that we were going to get stops. The confidence offensively was that we were going to convert. We really had no hesitation out there.”

In the red zone, USC turned its trips into points throughout the night. Williams found junior wide receiver Jordan Addison on an out route for a two-yard touchdown pass, Addison’s fifth touchdown grab of the year, and Williams ran the ball across the goal line himself for two more scores. The Bulldogs began to find their footing towards the end of the half defensively but already found themselves in a 21-10 hole at the break.

After halftime, the Trojans made it a point to establish their run game and quickly began to control the game on the ground. The team ran the football 17 times in the second half, compared to 11 passes, averaging just under seven yards per carry on those rushes. Redshirt senior running back Travis Dye had a monster night, picking up 102 yards on 11 attempts, averaging 9.3 yards per carry. Dye ran the ball with force all night long, but wowed the home crowd with a 25-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, shaking off five Fresno State defenders on his way to the end zone.

Senior running back Austin Jones also had a strong performance, leading USC with 111 yards on 12 carries. Jones scored a three-yard rushing touchdown in the opening drive of the second half after a previous touchdown run was called back due to his helmet being ripped off.

“[Austin Jones is] a great back,” Dye said about his partner in the backfield. “And it doesn’t mean that we have to be competitors or … hate each other because we’re good backs now. We can feed off each other. We can bounce ideas. If he does good, it just makes me want to do better, too.”

Defensively, the Trojans surrendered over 400 yards of offense, and over 200 through the air, but played well situationally, forcing turnovers and getting key stops to keep the Fresno State scoring output to a minimum.

The Bulldogs faced 10 third downs in this game and converted on just three of them. USC allowed four opposing drives to enter the red zone, but surrendered just one field goal on those possessions.

The defense made important plays in both long and short yardage situations throughout the contest and kept its turnover rate high. At the end of the first half, on a Fresno State hail mary attempt, redshirt senior tight end Malcolm Epps, playing deep safety for the play, came down with a half-ending interception. One possession later, after receiving the second half kickoff, the Bulldogs got the ball to midfield before redshirt senior defensive lineman Solomon Byrd sacked senior quarterback Jake Haener coming around the edge. Haener lost control of the ball, and Byrd lunged on top of it to get the ball right back to USC’s possession. Unfortunately for Fresno State, Haener was injured on the play, and sophomore Logan Fife finished the game at quarterback.

“I don’t even know what happened on that play,” Byrd said. “I just kept the ball and got off. Just reached my arm out to get a sack fumble because we were talking about it all week. That’s what I tried to execute, and that’s all.”

With emphasis on finishing strong, the Trojan defense refused to let up at the end of the game. With Fife under center and time winding down, the Bulldogs led a drive all the way to the USC one yard line, but the defensive front held up at the goal line for three straight plays, keeping Fresno State out of the end zone and firing up Trojan coaches and players alike.

“I just told the team that probably my favorite sequence of the game was the goal-line stop there at the end,” Riley said. “That’s what we’re about. No matter who thinks, ‘The game is over; this doesn’t matter,’ it all matters to us, and if you’re going to be a champion, it’s got to all matter. And so for our guys to get that stop right there at the end, to close the game was as meaningful as anything that happened tonight.”

Improving to 3-0 on the season with the win, the Trojans look to continue their strong start on the road against Oregon State next Saturday, which begins a stretch of eight consecutive conference games.