There are many reasons why USC could lose its first game of the season against Arizona on Saturday night — some more familiar than others: A slow start, a Caleb Williams-led offense Lukewarm and more successful on the ground than on the pitch. A combination of air, shaky defense, questionable time management and even a botched field goal could have given the Trojans a win in regulation, but didn’t. Almost everything goes wrong.
Yet somehow, on the third play of overtime, Williams slid past Wildcat defenders with a stuttering stride, giving him just enough room to sneak into the end zone for the lead. Arizona couldn’t compete, USC prevailed 43-41 to remain undefeated, and then the reigning Heisman champion felt the need to express his feelings on a hot topic: the Trojans’ defense.
“Without defense, we wouldn’t have won that game,” Williams said, jumping up to answer a question originally directed at Riley. “We were down 17-0. Our guys, without them, our defense wouldn’t be 43-41. Simply put.”
Riley echoed that sentiment, noting that Jacob Covington’s interception in the first half changed the course of the game and Arizona’s two-point field goal that resulted in the game-breaking game-clinching victory.
“When you’re down 17-0, you’re tested internally,” Riley said. “Your culture is tested quickly. Defense is what keeps us going.”
Williams and Riley, along with the rest of the team, know what has been proven by the numbers and the eye test: USC’s defense is a problem if the Trojans want to compete for a trophy at season’s end.
While Williams was on the verge of an upset on Saturday, this defense was enough to keep the Trojans alive on a night in which Williams was limited to 219 yards passing. Of course, the Heisman winner still found a way to be the fulcrum of the game, running into the end zone three separate times with both legs, including the game-winner.
While some of USC’s weaknesses were exposed, Riley praised the team’s ability to fight back.
“A lot of teams can’t win this game when they’re down 17-0,” Riley said.
While in previous games, USC’s high-powered offense, led by Williams, had been able to make defensive inconsistencies almost meaningless, this was different. All game long, the Wildcats made it difficult for Williams to find open receivers, all but eliminating his passing and scrimmage upside and turning him into a runner.
“The lanes kept opening up and they kept backing out, leaving me with big lanes,” said Williams, who ran for 41 yards. “I know I haven’t run much this year. I don’t really like running, to be honest, but you have to do whatever it takes to win.”
Williams also said multiple times that opposing teams have games against USC on their calendars, which means they will definitely try their best and can’t afford a slow start.
Riley, for his part, acknowledged the need for improvement while also being pleased that USC once again escaped a tough game unscathed.
“My expectations are higher than anyone else’s,” Riley said. “I hope we score every time we have the ball. Realistically, that’s not going to happen. You either panic or you can start over. We didn’t play our best tonight by any means, but One game for another and I wouldn’t count us out.”