'It's a one-game season right now': USC vs. Oregon four things to watch

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 4, 2023: USC Trojans quarterback Caleb Williams.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams stands on the sideline during a loss to Washington at the Coliseum on Nov. 4. Williams leads the nation in touchdown passes, but he has struggled with fumbles this season. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Under Pete Carroll, USC famously had “Tell The Truth Mondays.” The weekly sessions were intended for unvarnished recaps of the previous weekend’s game that helped the team process the highs and lows of each performance.

For Lincoln Riley’s Trojans, that tradition is turning into Quickly Move On Mondays.

Linebacker Mason Cobb said this week the Trojans didn’t watch film of USC’s loss to Washington. Last month, safety Calen Bullock said he didn’t watch the final drive against Utah when the Trojans gave up a game-winning field goal.

Read more: Brian Odom, Shaun Nua hope to galvanize struggling USC defense

With two Pac-12 losses, USC this week must confront an uncomfortable truth: The Trojans are in a must-win situation against No. 6 Oregon to keep their slim conference championship hopes alive.

“It’s a one-game season right now,” quarterback Caleb Williams said.

Riley said it’s rare he de-emphasizes film study after a game, but acknowledged this situation fit the bill. With a road game against a top-10 opponent looming after Riley fired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch and promoted defensive line coach Shaun Nua and inside linebackers coach Brian Odom to co-interim coordinator positions, there felt like more pressing needs than parsing each mistake from a game in which the Trojans gave up 572 yards, a Riley-era record.

“The only goal right now is getting this team, getting our defense, ready to play this week as well as we possibly can,” said Riley, who added coaches still spent their typical time breaking down the film. “That’s the only goal, the only focus. We went forward with that mindset.”

The matchup demands USC’s full attention. Led by Heisman-contending quarterback Bo Nix, the Ducks are undefeated at home. USC needs to win its final two games and hope for losses from two-loss teams like Utah, which plays first-place Washington on Saturday, Oregon State and Arizona, to stay in the hunt for a Pac-12 championship game appearance.

Here are four things to watch when USC (7-3, 5-2) takes on the Ducks (8-1, 5-1 Pac-12) at Autzen Stadium on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. (Fox):

Caleb Williams navigates uncharted territory

USC coach Lincoln Riley, left, speaks with quarterback Caleb Williams.
USC coach Lincoln Riley, left, speaks with quarterback Caleb Williams during a 52-42 loss to Washington at the Coliseum on Nov. 4. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Williams can make touchdowns out of nothing, but even the Heisman Trophy winner can’t make a national championship out of this.

The realization that Williams will go a third season without a College Football Playoff appearance finally set in after USC’s loss to Washington. He tried to maintain that a two-loss team might have had a chance in this competitive college football season, but a third loss surely ended all national championship chances.

Williams has never been out of the championship conversation like this, he acknowledged, even in high school. The unfamiliar situation has tested Williams as a leader, he said. He confided in people closest to him, including Riley, and vowed to stay steady.

“Something that I’ve said to the whole group, with the coaches around, before the season started is, I want to be the same person every single day,” Williams said.

Read more: After firing Alex Grinch, Lincoln Riley promises USC will have a defensive revival

Teammates have seen Williams live up to that promise amid the swings of the season.

“Caleb’s one of those dudes, he just hates losing, but [I] never question one doubt when the game starts, he’s ready to go,” center Justin Dedich said. “He’s an ultra-competitor.”

Williams leads the country in passing touchdowns with 28 and has the most rushing touchdowns in the Pac-12 with 10, but his ball security has emerged as a concern. The junior has lost fumbles on sacks in consecutive games. Williams’ fumble against Washington was especially costly as it allowed the Huskies to set up in the red zone and score immediately before halftime to take a seven-point lead. That mistake “can’t happen,” Riley said Thursday.

The Trojans lost just two fumbles as a team last year, including one by Williams in the Pac-12 championship game against Utah. The other was a muffed onside kick against Cal. This season, USC has fumbled 20 times and lost eight.

What's the rush?

USC defensive lineman Solomon Byrd plays against Fresno State in September 2022.
USC defensive lineman Solomon Byrd plays against Fresno State in September 2022. (John McCoy / Associated Press)

It used to be USC’s lone defensive strength. Now the pass rush has been reduced to a trickle. After averaging 3.7 sacks in the first six games, USC had just two in the last month as the Trojans have lost three of their last four games.

“That’s on me,” Nua said. “I’ve gotta get them going and get them to the quarterback faster.”

Wary of Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr. and his dynamic receivers, the Trojans often rushed just three defenders against the Huskies with hopes of taking away the deep passing game. The strategy was fruitless. Penix was sacked once but had no problem throwing for 256 yards and two touchdowns on 22-of-30 passing while the running game carried the Huskies to victory.

After nine sacks combined in the first five games, edge rushers Jamil Muhammad and Solomon Byrd have been quiet with just two in the last five weeks. They struggled against the Huskies — who are third in the country in sacks allowed with 0.67 a game — and the task will only get more difficult this week. The Ducks are even better at 0.44 sacks allowed per game, which ranks second nationally.

Read more: 'He's just very much on a mission': Family fuels Solomon Byrd's USC breakthrough

Major mismatch

USC just allowed 316 rushing yards to a pass-first offense. What the Trojans do against Oregon could get uglier.

USC’s Pac-12-worst rushing defense has its toughest task of the season against Oregon’s conference-best rushing attack. The Ducks lead the Pac-12 and rank 10th nationally with 208.1 rushing yards per game. They are the only team in the country to average more than six yards per carry, breaking off 6.33 yards per attempt.

Running back Bucky Irving leads the Ducks with 91.2 rushing yards per game with nine touchdowns, which is tied with Jordan James for the team lead. Oregon is the only FBS team to have two running backs with at least nine rushing touchdowns.

Trojans take on enemy territory

USC running back Austin Jones breaks away from Nevada safety Ezekiel Robbins during a Trojans' win in September.
USC running back Austin Jones breaks away from Nevada safety Ezekiel Robbins during a Trojans' win in September. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

USC’s final road game of the season may be its most difficult as Oregon has won 29 of its last 30 games at Autzen Stadium, where the Trojans have lost three of their last four.

“It’s just important we overcommunicate,” Dedich said. “Everyone echos the calls. … Luckily we had Colorado and Notre Dame, which were pretty loud atmospheres to get that sort of work in.”

The Trojans had just one false start in front of a sold-out Folsom Field crowd, but struggled in South Bend, Ind. USC committed four false start penalties against Notre Dame and gave up six sacks.

Read more: 'She’s my superhero': USC's Calen Bullock honors late grandmother through his play

USC shuffled its offensive line after the blowout loss and showed signs of improvement, especially in the running game. The Trojans averaged 6.3 yards per carry against Utah, one of the best running defenses in the country, and 7.5 yards per carry against Washington last week without starting running back MarShawn Lloyd.

Lloyd, who missed the game because of an undisclosed injury, is expected on track to return, Riley said Thursday. The South Carolina transfer leads the nation in yards per carry at 7.74.

Last week, Austin Jones had a season-high 127 rushing yards on 11 carries in Lloyd’s place. The Stanford transfer is also one of the few Trojans to play at Autzen Stadium where USC will return for the first time since 2015. Jones rushed for 100 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries against the Ducks in a 35-14 loss, but the stands were empty during the 2020 pandemic-affected season.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.