May 18, 2024

Times college football writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen discuss key questions ahead of No. 10 USC (6-0) at No. 21 Notre Dame (5-2) and No. 18 UCLA (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12) at No. 15 Oregon State (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) games on Saturday.

How concerned should USC be about its defense and are there any quick fixes available?

Kartje: Lincoln Riley has done his best to project confidence about where USC’s defense is headed, but nothing about the last three games suggests the Trojans will be fine going forward. Three of the six teams USC faced so far rank among the lowest-scoring groups in college football. We have yet to see the Trojans face an explosive offense, and yet they’ve still coughed up 421 yards per game, among the bottom 25 nationally. The best quarterback USC has faced so far might honestly be Arizona’s Noah Fifita, who torched the secondary for 303 yards and five touchdowns on Saturday night.

Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. and Oregon’s Bo Nix, both Heisman candidates in their own right, have to be licking their chops right now. That’s not to say USC can’t figure some things out before those big matchups in November. The pass rush tandem of Solomon Byrd and Jamil Muhammad has been a revelation, and Bear Alexander has been a terror on the interior. But some issues, like tackling on the perimeter, continue to go unsolved. Now the secondary is banged up. The inside linebackers are underachieving. You can understand why some USC fans are already spiraling, in spite of the 6-0 start.

Nguyen: Should USC be concerned? Yes. Very concerned. But six games into the season, I almost feel like teams have shown who they are and there’s not much to be done to change it. USC could just be the team that will miss two tackles while giving up an 80-yard touchdown on a simple screen pass then come up with a huge tackle for loss on the next play. Fans are going to hate it. I hope everyone is working on their favorite stress-relief methods each week. But perhaps the best-case scenario is that the Trojans can at least produce the big play when the big play is needed. They got killed on that toss play several times against Arizona, but when they needed the stop on the two-point conversion attempt in triple overtime, they got it. And it all counts as a win in the end.

McCollough: After an offseason that was supposed to be devoted to fixing its defense, USC finds itself 109th nationally in total defense and 76th in scoring defense halfway through the season. This is an unequivocal failure, to the point that few USC fans would have any issue with Lincoln Riley firing Alex Grinch midseason even though such a move would traditionally be extremely risky. But could USC’s defense play any worse with a new coordinator who has fresh eyes on the situation than it did on Saturday against Arizona? Whatever Grinch is putting out there to the Trojans isn’t sticking. Since Riley won’t make a rash move against his guy, USC will have to tinker with its scheme and personnel. I’m no defensive expert, but the best thing the Trojans could do is simplify the scheme and choose personnel who are most likely to be in the right place. When I watch USC’s players, I don’t see much confidence in what their job is and how to execute it on each play.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams leaps to throw across his body as Arizona Wildcats linebacker Justin Flowe closes in

USC quarterback Caleb Williams leaps to throw across his body as Arizona Wildcats linebacker Justin Flowe closes in at the Coliseum Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Have your expectations of USC changed after six games?

Nguyen: There were College Football Playoff hopes heading into the season, but with a schedule that included road games at Notre Dame and Oregon and hosting Washington, I can’t say I believed those hopes were truly expectations. It never felt plausible that the Trojans were going to run the table, but USC looks even further from the playoff than anticipated at this point in the season. With the performance of other Pac-12 teams, I’m wondering whether the Trojans even make it to the conference championship game now.

Kartje: I knew USC wouldn’t fix its defense overnight, but with a generational quarterback like Caleb Williams, maybe it wouldn’t matter so much in the grand scheme. Well, umm … not so sure that’s the case. USC is still 6-0, and that counts for something. But you don’t need a “trained eye” to understand the defense is bound to cost USC a game, sooner rather than later. Against teams like Washington and Oregon, even Williams won’t be able to save them. Both the Huskies and Ducks are serious playoff contenders that pile up more yards than any other offense in college football, USC’s included. They could very well combine for 1,000 yards and 100 points when they face the Trojans during consecutive weeks next month. With Notre Dame and Utah upcoming, USC may not even make it that far unscathed.

McCollough: Well, I picked USC to make the playoff, and now I am having a very hard time seeing that happen. For one, it’s a crowded field nationally. Georgia isn’t going anywhere. The Big Ten will get at least one team from Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. Oklahoma and Texas are likely to play again with a playoff spot potentially up for grabs. Florida State has positioned itself well for the stretch run. And that’s not even mentioning Washington and Oregon, which play Saturday in a game that will spring one of them forward in the discussion. Entering the season, I had assumed that 12-1 would get USC into the playoff, but I am no longer certain of that. And, most important, I’m far less certain of the Trojans’ ability to navigate this schedule losing one game.

Have your expectations of UCLA changed after five games?

Bolch: Nope. I predicted that the Bruins would be a surprise team in the Pac-12 and they remain on track after a bounce-back victory over Washington State. While quarterback Dante Moore has endured some predictable freshman struggles behind a spotty offensive line, UCLA’s defense has been even better than expected, giving this team a chance at a special season. If the Bruins can beat Oregon State in a tough environment Saturday at Reser Stadium, they will undeniably announce their presence as a Pac-12 title contender.

UCLA players celebrate an interception by linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo (2) against Washington State

UCLA players celebrate an interception by linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo (2) against Washington State on Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

(Kyusung Gong / Associated Press)

Nguyen: Ben called it and has the receipts to prove it. By locking down Washington State, UCLA proved its defense is no joke. Bruin fans finally get what they’ve been waiting for. The offense has struggled to get up to speed with a freshman quarterback, but if the Bruins can get by Oregon State in Corvallis this weekend, the schedule sets them up for a title shot.

McCollough: Props to Ben, because I never could have imagined what I’ve seen from the UCLA defense against Utah and particularly Washington State. If Dante Moore cleans up the freshman mistakes and allows Chip Kelly to game plan to help his top-five defense, look out. It’s wild to say that there’s a chance UCLA will be the more complete team when the Trojans and Bruins meet Nov. 18.

What does USC have to do to beat Notre Dame?

Nguyen: Just tackle someone on the first try. USC missed 15 tackles against Arizona State and 17 tackles apiece against Colorado and Arizona. Whether it’s a combination of bad technique, bad angles or a bad mentality, the Trojans need to figure out their tackling woes to make anything happen on defense.

Kartje: Louisville provided the blueprint in its upset win over Notre Dame last Saturday: It starts with getting pressure on Irish quarterback Sam Hartman. It’s paramount that USC’s pass rush makes Hartman uncomfortable. A bounce-back game from the Trojans’ star passer couldn’t hurt, either. Williams looked a little out of sorts against Arizona, and without him playing at his peak, USC might struggle to win any big games from here.

McCollough: This goes against Riley’s identity as a coach, but it wouldn’t hurt to slow down the tempo a bit on offense and run the ball more with standout running back MarShawn Lloyd. Simply put, USC’s defense needs to be on the field less, not more, so that the Trojans aren’t gassed for what is sure to be a hard-fought fourth quarter in South Bend.

What does UCLA have to do to beat Oregon State?

Bolch: There are two musts for the Bruins to prevail in their first game in Corvallis, Ore., since 2015. They must reasonably contain a Beavers ground game that has produced 205.5 yards per game and Moore cannot extend his two-game streak of having a pass intercepted and returned for a touchdown. If Moore can be a steady and relatively mistake-free game manager, UCLA’s defense and running game can do the rest.

McCollough: Ben said it. No need for anything fancy. Don’t beat yourself, establish Carson Steele on the ground, put your defense in good positions to do its thing. Oregon State doesn’t have much firepower in the passing game, so if UCLA is able to put the Beavers in third-and-long, the Bruins should be able to get off the field more often than not.

Who has surprised you the most from USC and UCLA?

Kartje: I didn’t anticipate that MarShawn Lloyd would become such an essential part of USC’s offense so quickly, but there’s no one outside of Williams who has made a bigger impact. Lloyd is averaging 7.75 yards per carry, nearly five of which have come after contact. Not only is he a load to take down, but he’s more nimble than expected, just as capable of switching directions or shaking off defenders as he is bowling them over. Relying on the run game might not come naturally to Riley, but with Lloyd looking like one of the best USC ball carriers in recent memory, maybe it wouldn’t hurt to have Williams hand it off more often.

Nguyen: Brenden Rice’s emergence in the passing game has been huge for the Trojans. Caleb Williams gets so much (deserved) credit, but Rice saved his quarterback on several throws against Arizona, adjusting to an under-thrown pass and turning it into a huge gain. Everyone was so excited about a new group of freshman receivers, including five-star Zachariah Branch who has provided huge fireworks on special teams, but Rice’s consistency has been an underrated asset in one of the most prolific offenses in the country.

UCLA's Kain Medrano chases Utah's Nate Johnson at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 23.

UCLA’s Kain Medrano chases Utah’s Nate Johnson at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Sept. 23.

(Chris Gardner / Getty Images)

Bolch: Linebacker Kain Medrano has continued to elevate his play in his fifth season, putting himself firmly on the radar of NFL scouts with his attacking style and playmaking. His 3.5 tackles for loss in five games match his previous combined career total, and his two sacks are the first of his career. The converted wide receiver is among a handful of players who have made UCLA’s defense perhaps the most feared in the Pac-12.

McCollough: I’m racking my brain trying to think of a better answer than Medrano, and I can’t justify anyone else. He’s the player who sticks out the most when you watch this UCLA defense and what it’s become almost overnight with D’Anton Lynn as defensive coordinator. The dude is a menace.

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