USC takeaways: Lincoln Riley pushes talented Trojans to hone their killer instinct

SEPT. 10, 2023 UPDATED 11:27 AM PT
Records fell, fans gushed, Lincoln Riley shrugged.
Despite USC delivering its highest-scoring game ever against Stanford in the last Pac-12 meeting between the longtime rivals, the Trojans coach didn’t indulge in any over-the-top praise after a 56-10 beatdown of the Cardinal on Saturday at the Coliseum.
Was the first half that ended in a 49-3 USC lead, the third-largest halftime margin for a Pac-12 team in a conference game, the best half that the Trojans have played during Riley’s USC tenure?
“I mean, it’s probably the best half of football we’ve played this year,” Riley conceded begrudgingly.
Los Angeles, California September 9, 2023-USC quarterback Caleb Williams pushes his way into the end zone for a touchdown against Stanford in the first quarter at the Coliseum Saturday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
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No. 6 USC hammers longtime rival Stanford 56-10 behind a stellar performance from Caleb Williams and the USC offense.
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The second-year coach immediately turned his attention to USC’s next challenge. After beating up on San José State, Nevada and Stanford at home to extend their win streak in the Coliseum to 10 games, the No. 5 Trojans play three of their next four games on the road, starting with Arizona State on Sept. 23 and No. 18 Colorado on Sept. 30.
“A team has to have a killer instinct to reach its potential,” Riley said. “We’re getting ready to go on the road a lot here in the next several weeks and to go on the road and win, you gotta be a killer. You do. That’s just part of it. And new challenges are coming up for us. I’m excited about how we’re progressing, but we gotta keep doing it and keep being ready for these challenges.”
Here are four takeaways from USC’s win:
Keep rising
USC quarterback Caleb Williams evades a Stanford player to pass the ball.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams evades Stanford pressure to fire a pass at the Coliseum on Saturday. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
USC scored 50 or more points for three consecutive games for the first time and matched the second-best three-game scoring stretch in program history with 178 points. And the Trojans aren’t done yet.
“Our goal is the best offense in the country,” said running back MarShawn Lloyd, who led the Trojans with 77 yards and one touchdown on nine carries.
USC (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12 Conference) is first in offensive rating, per Pro Football Focus, and the No. 1 overall team in the country, according to the advanced statistics network. But three blowouts won’t satisfy the Trojans when the road through the Pac-12 is more treacherous than previously believed. Pac-12 teams are 20-3 in nonconference games. Arizona State’s 27-15 loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday was the only defeat by more than one possession.
The Pac-12 has eight teams in the Associated Press top 25 this week with No. 23 Washington State and No. 24 UCLA making their season debuts in the poll. The Trojans still have to play five Pac-12 teams that are currently ranked — No. 8 Washington, No. 12 Utah, No. 13 Oregon, No. 18 Colorado and their crosstown rivals — and No. 9 Notre Dame. Then the Trojans will show what they can really do.
“I think in due time that there’s going to be a little bit more adversity that strikes us,” receiver Brenden Rice said, “and we’re really going to see what the Trojans offense is made of.”
Get in line
USC defensive end Solomon Byrd sacks Stanford quarterback Ashton Daniels and forces him to fumble Saturday at the Coliseum.
USC defensive end Solomon Byrd sacks Stanford quarterback Ashton Daniels and forces him to fumble Saturday at the Coliseum. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
USC’s defensive front is surprising itself with a newfound physicality through three games.
“I didn’t know it as much as this,” rush end Solomon Byrd said of USC’s aggressiveness up front. “You see it in practice, but that’s practice. We’re an extremely physical group and we’re ready to get after it and stop the run.”
The Trojans gave up 208 rushing yards to Stanford, their most this season, but 59 came on one carry by Casey Filkins in the third quarter of the blowout. USC is second in the Pac-12 in tackles for loss per game with nine, trailing UCLA’s 10.
Byrd, who notched three tackles for loss and a forced fumble on four total stops Saturday, has 4.5 tackles for loss and his fellow starting rush end Jamil Muhammad has two tackles for loss with two forced fumbles. The front’s aggressive mindset has created “a certain edge” that’s evident on all levels of defense, safety Bryson Shaw said.
“When they’re hunting like that, it’s a mentality,” said Shaw, who had a season-high five tackles. “These guys, you can feel it. Jamil, the older guys, they have a certain [mindset]. I’m going to go get this quarterback, we’re going to get off the field. I’m going to make the play. The DBs aren’t going to have to make the play because we’re going to make the play. They say that on the sideline and we believe them.”
Bear down
USC defensive lineman Bear Alexander stretches out his arms and blocks a pass by Stanford quarterback Justin Lamson
Max Williams got the interception. Bear Alexander deserves an assist.
The defensive lineman’s pressure in Stanford quarterback Ashton Daniels’ face caused the wobbly pass that Williams easily grabbed for USC’s first interception of the season to end Stanford’s first drive. Williams returned it 39 yards. Alexander didn’t even get a quarterback hurry in the box score for the play, but Williams was quick to share credit.
“[I] want to shout out the D-line,” Williams said, “because when they get pressure like they’ve been doing, it makes our job in the secondary a lot easier.”
Alexander, a transfer from Georgia, has been a breakout star of the defensive line. He had two tackles and a pass breakup Saturday and his four quarterback pressures per game are tied for second in the nation among interior defensive linemen, according to Pro Football Focus.
While his progress during preseason camp was slowed by a nagging injury, he started to emerge in the weeks before the season opener as he could participate more regularly. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound lineman quickly blew away his teammates with his speed.
“His feet — I’m like, ‘How do you move that fast?’ ” said Shaw, a nimble 6-foot, 190-pound safety. “You’re big as hell moving that fast.”
Fellow interior linemen Kyon Barrs and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou help Alexander anchor USC’s defensive line. Ta’ufo’ou is one of the team’s unsung heroes, Byrd said, and notched two more tackles Saturday.
“A lot of D-tackles historically don’t get a lot of stats. It is what it is,” Byrd said. “But when you watch film, you see the knock back, position points, they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do. That helps us out a lot. Me and Jamil, we had strip sacks, but that wasn’t just us. You play it back, you see other guys doing their jobs, that allows us to do ours.”
Something special
USC kick returner Zachariah Branch looks over his shoulder while pulling away to score a touchdown.
USC kick returner Zachariah Branch beats Stanford’s Gaethan Bernadel and scores a touchdown Saturday at the Coliseum. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)
With a second touchdown in three games, USC’s special teams unit is finally living up to its name. After Zachariah Branch returned a punt for a 75-yard score in the second quarter against Stanford, the Trojans nearly pulled off a second one before a holding penalty on freshman Duce Robinson wiped off Michael Jackson III’s 74-yard return. USC is averaging 34.5 yards per kick return and 19.44 yards per punt return, vast improvements from last season’s marks of 18.19 and 5.47 yards, respectively.
“You’re seeing a little bit the depth of this roster,” Riley said. “They’re excited because they know we got some dynamic returners back there and they’ve really blocked well and so it’s been a real group effort. I told you guys in the offseason that the special teams taking a big jump was going to be a big key for us and you saw that tonight.”
Having a talent like Branch certainly helps. The freshman phenom is the first Trojan since Adoree’ Jackson in 2016 to score punt, kick and receive touchdowns in the same season. Curtis Conway, in 1992, is the only other USC player to accomplish the trifecta since 1971, when records are available.
Even after burning San José State on a kickoff return in his college debut — which was his first kick return for a touchdown since eighth grade, Branch said — teams insist on testing the former five-star prospect by kicking him the ball. His teammates are surprised by the bold strategy, but they like how it’s working out so far.
“They don’t learn lessons,” Rice said. “But hey, they’re going to keep that wound open, keep going.”

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