USC Stock Report after Week 2: Buzzsaw Trojans enter bye week unblemished
USC arrives at its bye week with an unblemished 3-0 record and one of the most explosive offenses in college football.
Following a 56-10 win over Stanford, USC is averaging 59.3 points a game this season. It’s a mark that ranks second nationally, trailing only the Oregon Ducks, who had 81 in their opener. Quarterback Caleb Williams has opened the year looking like a sure-fire threat to win his second Heisman Trophy. The skill talent is next-level. And the defense has shown improvement throughout the first three games.
Let’s take stock of the Trojans after a Week 2 win.
Player of the Week: Max Williams, DB
This spot could belong to Caleb Williams every week, so I’m going to highlight some other guys to keep it fresh. Williams was everywhere in the Trojans’ win.
He had three tackles, a tackle for loss, an interception, and a pass breakup. Pro Football Focus gave him the highest grade of any USC defender (88.8) for his 26 snaps. He wasn’t charged with a missed tackle, and he didn’t give up a reception on his two targets.
Williams’ interception came three plays into Stanford’s first drive and immediately set the tone for the rest of the evening. USC scored on the first possession of the game, Williams then picked off Ashton Daniels and returned it 39 yards (a penalty cut into that), and then USC scored again three plays later. Five minutes and 55 seconds in, USC led 14-0.
And it was the perfect team play. Defensive lineman Bear Alexander had a tremendous get-off and was right in Ashton Daniels’ face after his play-fake. That forced a blind throw back to the other side of the field, where Williams was just sitting and waiting.
Gotta give @maaaax_1 a shoutout for the turnover as well ‼️
📺: FOX pic.twitter.com/1bCIuWnYnQ
— USC Football ✌️ (@uscfb) September 10, 2023
So far this year, Williams has nine tackles, two TFLs, a pass breakup, and the only interception by a Trojan defender. He hasn’t missed a tackle yet, and he’s only given up three receptions on seven targets for 12 yards.
Freshman of the Week: Zachariah Branch
If anyone kicks the football to freshman receiver Zachariah Branch after USC’s bye week, they deserve what they get.
He has officially moved into “avoid at all costs” territory. In the second quarter against Stanford, Branch returned a punt 75 yards for a touchdown that put USC up 49-3. He has
THAT'S A BAAAADDD MANN ‼️
📺: FOX pic.twitter.com/uXeDB6LIb9
— USC Football ✌️ (@uscfb) September 10, 2023
Branch is the first Trojan since Adoree’ Jackson in 2016 to have a punt return touchdown, a kickoff return touchdown (96-yard return vs. San Jose State in Week 0), and at least one receiving touchdown in the same season. He’s just the third player to do so for USC since records became available in 1971. And he has done so in the first three games of his college career.
Comparisons to Percy Harvin are appropriate. He looks like one of the most electric players in the country every time he touches the football.
Biggest surprise: Third-down defense
The Trojans ranked 109th nationally last season in third-down defense, giving up conversions 42.9% of the time.
Through three games so far this year, USC has allowed conversions on just 14 of the 44 third downs it has faced (31.8%). That ranks 37th nationally.
The most impressive part? Opponents are a combined 4-for-13 on third downs with 4 yards or less to go. Outside of Tuli Tuipulotu last year, the defensive front left a ton to be desired. And with Tuipulotu leaving for the NFL, it was fair to question how the Trojans would look. So far so good.
Biggest concern: All or nothing in a different way
Last season, it was turnovers that bailed out an inefficient defense. USC couldn’t stop teams from moving the football, but it was able to limit the damage by coming up with takeaways. USC had 28 takeaways in 14 games to rank sixth nationally.
There was some luck there. Teams can typically expect to produce takeaways on 20% of their defended passes and 50% of opponent fumbles. USC’s expected takeaway number was 19.8.
It was fair to expect the actual takeaway number to come back to the median a bit in 2023, which it has. USC is three takeaways under its expected number in three games. (Seven expected, four actual.)
But USC has found another way to cause havoc.
The Trojans lead the country in tackles for loss, with 27. Consider that USC’s defense currently ranks 99th nationally in run defense (allowing 4.3 yards per carry) and 81st nationally in efficiency defense (allowing 5.4 yards per play) while also leading the country in negative plays produced.
USC looks better on defense. It looks more capable of stopping teams. And being able to produce plays in the backfield is more sustainable than waiting for a turnover to bail you out. Watch if teams start to adjust to try and counter USC’s aggressive, attacking style.
Developing trend: Lloyd is starting to roll
MarShawn Lloyd has 153 rushing yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries in the Trojans’ last two games. That’s 9.6 yards a carry. The first-year USC back is a solid fit in Lincoln Riley’s offense and, after a quiet opener, is starting to hit his stride. The lack of a demanding workload through three games will only help.
Key stat: 5.3 points per possession
Caleb Williams is better, somehow. He’s completing 79% of his passes this season, and he has 12 passing touchdowns without an interception. Williams hasn’t played a full game yet, either.
He has been at the controls for 24 possessions so far this year. USC is averaging 5.3 points per possession on them. That is absurd.
“Sometimes it looks easy, but it is hard,” Williams said after the Stanford game. “You go through weeks and summers and springs of training and things like that just to get to this point. So you treat everything the same. You treat everyone the same. I’m not pacing myself at all. I’m going out there trying to kill. It’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make everybody feel our pain and put it on our own terms.”
The Trojans have their first of two in-season bye weeks this weekend. Opening in Week 0 lets the program have the final weekend of the regular season off, something that could be a major factor if they earn a spot in the Pac-12 title game.
USC returns to the field against Arizona State on Saturday, Sept. 23, on the road. Then they head to resurgent No. 18 Colorado on Sept. 30 before returning to the Coliseum on Oct. 7 to host Arizona.