After dominating Stanford 56-10 on Saturday in what may be the two teams’ last matchup for a while, USC football is keying in on consistency for both sides of the ball during its bye week.
Coming into the season, the defense was the biggest question mark for USC in its quest to make the College Football Playoff and potentially become national champions. The Trojan defense has improved every week.
After a shaky game against San Jose State, the Trojans’ defense played their best game of the season in their rivalry game against Stanford. The Trojans suffocated Stanford’s offense, only allowing 36 total yards in the 1st quarter and 146 total yards at the half.
The Trojans forced three turnovers through fumbles with two of them coming on sacks. Redshirt senior rush end Jamil Muhammad tallied both a sack and a forced fumble Saturday to continue an impressive start for him this season.
Muhammad transferred in from Georgia State this year and has had an immediate impact. He has two sacks and seven tackles, plus his two forced fumbles are tied for the team lead.
The defense has been as consistent as ever thanks to the Trojans getting to the opponent’s offense early and keeping them pinned back.
“We’ve been playing together really on all downs, not just third downs,” Muhammad said. “One of my old coaches said, ‘You’ve got to earn the right to rush the passer.’ You’ve got to earn that right in the first couple downs by defending the run well and playing fast. It’s just a culmination of those things done by everyone, not just one or two people.”
On the offensive side, the Trojans have been honing in on their offensive line and seeing how they can improve. Just like the defense, the offensive line had their best game of the season by allowing junior quarterback Caleb Williams plenty of time in the pocket and provided an ample amount of room for running backs redshirt junior MarShawn Lloyd and redshirt senior Austin Jones.
USC’s offensive line coach Josh Henson has preached and seen consistency as both the starters and backups have had similar playing time due to the nature of USC’s blowout victories so far this season.
“We didn’t really have the play in the first half that we’ve had the two games previously from an offensive line standpoint, where we kind of cost the drive,” Henson said. “You saw what happened. When we’re not stopping drives with our play, our skill guys are pretty good.”
One of those skill guys that’s stood out so far is freshman wide receiver Zachariah Branch, who has showcased his electric speed in multiple facets of the game. Branch scored on a 75-yard punt return touchdown early on in the 2nd quarter against Stanford while tallying four receptions for 30 yards.
Branch is the only player in the FBS with a receiving touchdown, kick return touchdown and punt return touchdown this year.
“I would say [returning] is 75% instinct and 25% preparation,” Branch said. “There’s a lot of things that you have to look at on the prep side of things such as where the wind is coming from and how the ball is coming down, but a lot of it is instinct. If you don’t hit it then some of those holes will collapse pretty fast.”
USC football will take this break to regroup and focus on areas where it thinks need improvement as it dives head first into playing the top teams in the Pac-12 after the bye week.