USC and UCLA boast matching 3-0 records, but their experiences have been quite different to start the season.
Los Angeles Times college football writers Ben Bolch, Ryan Kartje, J. Brady McCollough and Thuc Nhi Nguyen discuss what we’ve learned from the Trojans, the Bruins and the rest of the Pac-12 so far.
How should fans feel about UCLA’s and USC’s 3-0 starts?
Kartje: Contentment isn’t a state USC fans are all that accustomed to, but after three consecutive comfortable victories, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be perfectly pleased by what they’ve seen. Has it been perfect? Of course not. Is the defensive front a concern? Absolutely. But the offense is as advertised, averaging more than 50 points per game, and while USC’s defense has given up a ton of yards, it still has allowed fewer than 20 points per game. The Trojans continue to trend upward and if they can come out of Corvallis with a key road victory, they’ll really be cooking with gas.
As for UCLA, well … I’d imagine there’s a decidedly different sentiment among Bruins fans.
McCollough: Yes, it very much depends on if you’re wearing blue and gold or cardinal and gold. UCLA fans can feel relieved that they didn’t suffer an embarrassing loss to South Alabama, but they also should feel wary of the Washington-Utah-Oregon stretch after another cupcake in Colorado this week. If the Bruins don’t improve quickly, they could be 4-3 before we know it. I know USC fans are elated with the team’s start, and they should be. The Trojans look like contenders for the Pac-12 title and a playoff berth. Wow.
Nguyen: I get why both fan bases are a little nervous. They’ve been hurt before. They’re not ready to trust again. We’ve all been there. If I were a USC fan though, I’d be much happier. If you can’t be happy with that offense, then there are some life priorities to sort out. The defense still warrants questions. For UCLA fans, they’re going to need a little more from the Bruins. Winning with such an easy early schedule was never going to be enough. They had to win in convincing, stylish fashion and that hasn’t been the case.
Bolch: UCLA might be the most angst-riddled 3-0 team in the country given all the blowback about low attendance and spotty play against inferior competition. Here’s the thing: If the Bruins can get to 5-0 by beating Colorado and No. 18 Washington, their bandwagon is going to be overflowing again and at least one set of tarps is going to have to come off at the Rose Bowl for the game against Utah on Oct. 8.
What has surprised you the most about USC?
Nguyen: The ruthless efficiency of the offense. We knew they were going to be good — with transfers like that, it was a given — but to be this good, this quick? I didn’t see that happening.
Kartje: The Trojans’ three-headed rushing attack of Travis Dye, Austin Jones and, to a lesser extent, freshman Raleek Brown has far exceeded my expectations. Riley has insisted since his hire that he was committed to the run, and so far those three have delivered in a big way. Dye and Jones each surpassed 100 yards rushing against Fresno State. Brown has been nursing a sore ankle since Week 1, when he was the most explosive player on the field for USC. Don’t be surprised if he becomes a much bigger part of the offense, making that backfield trio even more lethal.
McCollough: I’m most surprised by how excited I am to watch every Saturday (sadly, it seems we’re going to have to keep waiting for the “After Dark” slot a bit longer). We all knew that the offense was going to be improved with Lincoln Riley and the star transfers, but I was pretty underwhelmed by Riley’s last offense at Oklahoma and was curious if he was losing a bit of his pixie dust. Guess not. USC is so fun to watch, and Riley seems fully dialed in as a play caller like he was early on with the Sooners. Sometimes, a change of scenery is all that’s needed.
And what has surprised you the most about UCLA?
Bolch: That maybe new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern really is Jerry Azzinaro 2.0. Despite all the talk about NFL passing concepts and renewed vigor brought to the Bruins’ defense, their showing against South Alabama was a throwback performance, and not in a good way. It stirred nightmarish reminders of excessive cushions surrendered by defensive backs and a failure to adjust quickly enough, in this case to the Jaguars’ screen game. It’s either going to spur needed change or be a harbinger of disappointment later in the season.
McCollough: I would say how much has been put on the shoulders of Dorian Thompson-Robinson to get this team to 3-0 against that schedule. The assumption was that Zach Charbonnet may lead the country in rushing at this point, but instead he hasn’t reached 200 yards and backup Keegan Jones has the same number of carries. Of course Charbonnet’s health has been a factor, but he’s going to need to be the guy we saw last season if UCLA is going to put itself in the Pac-12 title hunt.
Nguyen: In the category of “unwelcome surprises,” I was puzzled by some of the early mechanical errors like not ensuring that the kick returner was wearing the right jersey. With a coach that’s been with the program for five years, you would expect those things to be taken care of, even in a season opener. No wonder fans are not ready to fully believe in this team. They’re still making some old mistakes.
How worried should USC fans be about the run defense?
Kartje: It’s not quite DEFCON 1 yet. But it’s not great, Bob! USC has given up an average of 177 yards per game on the ground, which could be a serious problem once it finally runs into an opponent capable of slowing down its blistering offense and controlling the clock. Outside of Tuli Tuipulotu, who’s very much a game-wrecker, USC just doesn’t have many standouts along the defensive line. That group should improve, but any injuries up front could make a bad situation much, much worse as more dynamic rushing attacks, like Oregon State’s, test the Trojans.
McCollough: We knew that the Trojans were not going to be built to be a run-stuffing outfit. The biggest problem with not being able to stop the run is that opponents will be able to keep the ball out of Caleb Williams’ hands. That certainly will be Oregon State’s plan Saturday night.
Nguyen: Fans should mentally prepare themselves for life on the edge for the rest of the season. It might be a whole year of “boom or bust” defense with the Trojans hoping to cover up their mistakes in the run game with big sacks or takeaways. So far, it’s worked out, but the model doesn’t seem sustainable.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson closed last season on a high note and vowed to show how much he had learned from past mistakes. What has he shown so far?
Bolch: Thompson-Robinson has been steady enough to keep the Bruins undefeated, but he acknowledged that the miscommunication on the fumbled handoff to Charbonnet and pitch to Jones during the South Alabama game could cost the team later in the season if it’s not corrected. Thompson-Robinson usually gets into a better groove the deeper he gets into a season, so I expect his best is yet to come — and UCLA is going to need it during a three-game stretch against nationally ranked Washington, Utah and Oregon.
McCollough: DTR’s completion percentage has risen to a career-high 72.6, and he’s averaging eight yards per carry. He is doing that with an inferior collection of playmakers around him too, especially when you consider Charbonnet has been limited. DTR needs more help, but he’s proven to be up to the task and backed up his words.
Have the first three weeks changed your view of the Pac-12 championship race?
McCollough: I’m much more intrigued by this conference race than I was at the start of the season, when it seemed like Utah, Oregon and USC were the only legitimate threats to take the crown. Washington’s dominant showing against No. 11 Michigan State and Washington State’s big win at Wisconsin have put the Apple Cup teams right in the thick of the battle. Washington’s offense has undergone one of the biggest turnarounds in the country with Michael Penix Jr. throwing to some talented receivers who clearly have been underused. It seems like five teams are competing for those two coveted spots in Las Vegas, and Oregon State has a big chance Saturday night to put itself firmly in the mix too.
Bolch: Who could have thought after those Utah and Oregon losses in Week 1 that the Pac-12 would be in position to possibly put a team in the College Football Playoff semifinals for the first time since Washington made it in 2016? The top half of the conference is as strong as it’s been in quite some time, which will make for fun matchups every week.
Nguyen: The Pac is back, friends. I was really impressed by some of the nonconference performances (not you, Colorado), and there seems to be a number of legitimate championship contenders. The Pacific Northwest’s swift rise has been a big surprise, especially with Washington and Washington State going 3-0 with ranked wins under first-year coaches. Even UCLA’s old friend Jedd Fisch got some positive results with Arizona. This time last year, the Wildcats were coming off a loss to Northern Arizona.
Kartje: No Pac-12 team has been more of a pleasant surprise than the Huskies, who finally seem to have found a capable coach. But my biggest takeaway has been that no offense in this conference — and heck, maybe the country — is capable of keeping up with USC if the Trojans are firing on all cylinders. Though, putting this down on paper probably dooms Caleb Williams and Co. to be blitzkrieged by the Beavers on Saturday.
Nguyen: For the record, Washington is fourth in the country in total offense with 548.3 yards per game. USC is 11th with 520. UW and Oregon State both have scored 18 offensive touchdowns to USC’s 17. USC leads in scoring with 50.7 points per game, but that includes the three defensive touchdowns against Rice. So the Trojans aren’t the only high-powered attack in the Pac-12.