June 21, 2024

Through three weeks and three lopsided blowouts, USC grew accustomed to finishing its Saturdays in cruise control.

Caleb Williams, the Trojans’ Heisman Trophy winner, spent most of the team’s seamless second halves on the sideline, while freshmen and walk-ons took the field in the fourth quarter. Even USC’s much-maligned defense looked stout, shutting down the likes of San José State, Nevada and Stanford, the latter two of which it held to a combined 24 points.

It was impossible to know after those three weeks where USC actually stood. Was its defense better than expected? Was the offense actually unstoppable? Was this a College Football Playoff contender?

The true tests were expected to come sooner or later. Just not Saturday in Tempe.

As the rest of the Pac-12’s contenders offered resounding statements of their strength — Oregon dominated Colorado, Washington wiped the floor with California, Utah stifled UCLA — USC‘s play raised more concerns about where its season is headed in a 42-28 win over Arizona State.

Chief among them is how their defense will hold up against those contenders, when it struggled at times to stop the Sun Devils, who hadn’t scored in six quarters coming into Saturday and were down to their third-string quarterback.

“We want the hard games,” linebacker Tackett Curtis said. “Nobody wants just the easy win — that’s what we live for, the hard games. We live for the pressure.”

The defense did show up in the fourth quarter Saturday, conjuring a pass rush when USC needed it most. Defensive tackle Bear Alexander halted a potential game-tying drive with a third-down sack. A strip sack from Solomon Byrd stopped the next possession. The Trojans added four sacks on a single drive to finally close the door.

“Finishing the game, we live on the mantra, the longer we go, the better we get,” said edge rusher Jamil Muhammad.

Yet the only reason USC needed four sacks on a late drive to stop the Sun Devils was on account of the four plays of 13 yards or more it allowed in between.

That won’t fly against better Pac-12 offenses, starting next week in Colorado, where USC will face an explosive group that was just embarrassed on a national stage by the Ducks and will no doubt be out to prove itself again. The schedule doesn’t let up after that, either.

There’s still time to right the ship. USC had its worst showing last year in its first road game, narrowly escaping with a win at Oregon State. Perhaps the Trojans follow the same pattern this season.

But after its first real test, it was clear USC still has a lot to learn, and a long way to go before it can be considered a serious contender.

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