All USC needed was one last stop from its defense to escape Corvallis for the last time.
On any other night, that might have been a frightening thought. Through three games, the Trojans defense had looked primed for potential disaster. It seemed a matter of time before its mistakes cost USC a game.
But on Sunday, with its previously prolific offense sputtering, a suddenly stingy USC defense was all that kept USC alive. Time and again, it made critical stops — or forced critical turnovers — flipping the script at the most critical juncture of its season.
“Football makes it that way,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “There’s no scenario where every game goes the one way, and we get to play OK, and get the win and move on. These opponents don’t allow that.”
Grinch will take any scenario in which his defense was leading the nation in turnovers forced (14) and turnover margin through the season’s first month. For the third time in four weeks, the Trojans finished with four takeaways, the last of which came in the final seconds, just when they needed it most.
Eric Gentry had already snagged a pick of his own, when the 6-6 USC linebacker reached out his long arms to tip a pass downfield from Oregon State quarterback Chance Nolan. USC safety Max Williams came down with the interception, the 11th for the defense through four games.
“The defense took a step in the right direction tonight,” Williams said.
It wasn’t just fueled by takeaways, either. USC held Oregon State to under five yards per carry on the ground, as its defensive front put together one of its better performances.
“The four turnovers, the huge stops, closing the game, you can’t say enough about how we played defensively,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “You just can’t.”
What else is there to say about USC’s narrow 17-14 win over Oregon State? Here are more takeaways from Saturday’s game:
Right on time
The timing had to be absolutely perfect. And nothing about Caleb Williams’ performance to that point could be described as such.
But with just over a minute remaining and USC on the ropes, Williams delivered one of his best throws of the season, just in the nick of time.
Jordan Addison had largely been neutralized, with just two catches for 21 yards to that point, but as he saw the defense in Cover-Two and the cornerback across from him jump an underneath route, the Trojans’ top wideout knew the ball might be coming to him.
He tried to keep his composure, to delay the safety help by even a split-second. It was just long enough, as the ball slipped just past, hitting Addison square in the chest for a 21-yard, go-ahead touchdown. It was Addison’s sixth touchdown this season — and easily his most critical.
“That was a really hard throw,” Addison said. “I feel like the timing, as soon as I turned my head, the ball was already in the air.”
As he came down with the decisive score, Addison offered a wave to the Oregon State crowd.
“It’s time to go home,” he said. “Pack it up.”
The Neilon nudge
Faced with a last-gasp fourth down to keep USC’s final scoring drive alive, Williams would need a little push. Literally.
As Williams took off, darting through traffic, tiptoeing toward a first down, the quarterback ran into a wall of Oregon State defenders right at the sticks. For a moment, it seemed he might be stopped short.
That’s when center Brett Neilon came barreling into the action, followed shortly behind by the rest of USC’s offensive line. The push was just enough to get Williams past the first-down marker – and to yield some comparisons to a more infamous push from the past.
For Riley, it was a telling moment for a team that needed to do everything to escape late.
“That was awesome,” Riley said. “Those are the moments. That’s what it comes down to, on fourth down, gotta find a way, and you just leave it all on the field.”
Bring the noise
One half of Reser Stadium remained under construction Saturday, a mess of metal beams and concrete slabs that limited the bright orange swath of Oregon State fans to just a single side of the field. It wasn’t the most picturesque final visit to the stadium for USC. But the fans who packed that one side made their presence felt enough to, at one point, rattle USC and its offense.
Riley wound up wasting all three of his first-half timeouts as the offense found itself unable to communicate efficiently amid the cacophony of screaming Beaver fans and ever-present sound of chainsaws on each successive third down.
“The noise was a factor,” Riley said. “I don’t know if we anticipated coming into a stadium that was only half available and it would be like that.”
Running back Travis Dye, who twice played in Corvallis with Oregon, said he thought that it was “one of the rowdiest crowds Oregon State has ever come with.”