There were less than two minutes left on the clock – a comfortable touchdown at four win Fresno State for a long time secure – but as USC lined up for a last fight with their backs to the end zone last Saturday, no one seemed to have warned their defense.
Instead of rolling to the finish line, USC mounted one of their strongest defensive supports of the season, stopping three straight runs inside the two-yard line to force a turnover. on the downs. afterwards, The Lincoln Riley Trojan Horse Trainer called it his favorite sequence from the game.
“That’s what we want,” Riley said. “It doesn’t matter who thinks the game is over, everything matters to us. If you want to be a champion, everything has to matter. For our guys, getting that stoppage right at the end to close the game was as meaningful as anything that happened tonight.
A similar effort near the goal line could prove particularly significant on Saturday, when USC meets Oregon State to Corvallis for a crucial early Pac-12 tilt. The Beavers have scored on all 14 trips to the red zone this season. Only four schools (Michigan, Clemson, Vanderbilt, and Tennessee) have more red-zone conversions, while posting a perfect conversion rate.
Due to the struggles of their defense between the 20s, the Trojans have already withstood 13 trips to the red zone. But while opposing offenses had no trouble getting there, USC’s efforts in the 1920s kept them from accomplishing much when they do.
Only seven of those 13 trips (54%) resulted in runs, a rate that sets USC apart as one of college football’s best red-zone defenses through three games. No other defense that has faced double-digit trips into the red zone has held opponents to a success rate below 60%.
That’s probably not sustainable, especially against an offense like Oregon State, which has one of the best rushing offenses in the conference.
“It’s just about fighting, not giving in, being aware of yourself to make them run another play,” said USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. “There’s no magic. Sometimes you wish there had been some, but give our guys credit, we’ve held up in situations so far. But it’s a bit of a different animal in the red zone this week.
It starts with Oregon State’s rushing attack. The Beavers lead the Pac-12 — and rank eighth in the nation — with 11 rushing touchdowns in three games. The threat of the run sets up the perfect game scenario for quarterback Chance Nolan, who threw for four touchdowns against USC in a dominant win for Oregon State last season.
“They were effective but so were we,” Riley said of the red zone. “We were stingy against the run there. We defended well. We got turnovers. We got saves on fourth down. Both teams did the things you need to do right, and it’s going to be strength on strength There will be moments like that in this football game, and those will be pivotal moments.”
Oregon State won’t be able to turn to tight end Luke Musgrave in those times. The Beavers’ leading receiver in two games will miss the game with an injury.
But Oregon State will likely use linebacker Jack Colletto again in short-range situations around the goal line. Colletto already has three touchdowns this season in six carries.
The best weapon against Oregon State’s red zone attack might be to keep them out of the red zone. But that part has been the problem for the USC defense this season.