USC and UCLA boast 3-0 records, but their experiences have been starkly 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 learned from the Trojans, Bruins and the rest of the Pac-12.
How should fans feel about UCLA and USC’s 3-0 starts?
card: Complacency isn’t something USC fans are accustomed to, but after three comfortable wins in a row, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be completely satisfied with what they’ve seen. Was it perfect? Of course not. Is the defensive front a concern? Absolutely. But the offense is as advertised, averaging over 50 points per game, and while USC’s defense gave up a ton of yards, it still allowed less than 20 points per game. The Trojans continue to rise, and if they can get out of Corvallis with a key road win, they’ll really be cooking on gas.
As for UCLA, well … I’d imagine there’s a whole different vibe among Bruins fans.
McCollough: Well, it really depends on whether you wear blue and gold or cardinal and gold. UCLA fans can take comfort in not suffering an embarrassing loss to South Alabama, but they should be wary of the Washington-Utah-Oregon stretch this week after another upset at Colorado. If the Bruins don’t improve quickly, they could be 4-3 before we know it. I know USC fans are excited about the team’s start, and they should be. The Trojans appear to be contenders for the Pac-12 title and a playoff berth. Surprise! Wow.
Nguyen: I can understand why both fans are a little upset. They were injured before. They are not ready to trust again. We’ve all been there. If I were a USC fan, I’d be happier. If you can’t come to terms with this crime, then you have some life priorities to address. The defense still warrants questions. For UCLA fans, they’re going to need a little more from the Bruins. Winning such an easy early schedule was never going to be enough. They had to win in believable, stylish fashion, and it just didn’t happen.
Bolch: UCLA might be the most worrisome 3-0 team in the country, given all the knocks on low attendance and spotty play against inferior competition. Here’s the thing: If the Bruins can get to 5-0 with wins over Colorado and No. 18 Washington, their pack will be stacked again and at least one set of tarps will have to make it to the Rose Bowl. Oct. 8 game against Utah.
What surprised you most about USC?
Nguyen: The ruthless efficiency of crime. We knew they were going to be good – that was a given with transfers like this – but to be this good, this fast? I didn’t see that happening.
card: The Trojans’ three-pronged offense of Travis Dye, Austin Jones and, to a lesser extent, freshman Raleek Brown exceeded my expectations. Riley has insisted on his commitment to running back since he was hired, and so far he’s delivered on that three in a big way. Dye and Jones each had 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 bigger part of the offense, making this back trio even more lethal.
McCollough: What surprises me the most is how excited I am to watch every Saturday (unfortunately, we’ll have to wait a little longer for the After Dark slot). We all knew the offense would be improved with Lincoln Riley and the star signings, but I was pleasantly surprised by Riley’s recent offense at Oklahoma and wondered if he had lost some of his pixie dust. Don’t guess. USC is a lot of fun to watch, and Riley seems fully dialed in when calling a game like he did early with the Sooners. Sometimes a change of scenery is all that is needed.
What surprised you most about UCLA?
Bolch: It may be that new defensive coordinator Bill McGovern really is Jerry Azzinaro 2.0. For all the talk of the NFL’s passing concepts and renewed strength to the Bruins’ defense, their showing against South Alabama was a throwback performance, and not in a good way. It led to nightmarish reminders of too many cushions surrendered by defensive backs and, in this case, not adjusting quickly enough to the Jaguars’ screen game. It will either prompt a needed change or herald disappointment later in the season.
McCollough: I’d say that’s how much money is being put on Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s shoulders for this team to go 3-0 against this schedule. The assumption was that Zach Charbonnet could lead the nation in rushing at this point, but instead he fell short of 200 yards and backup Keegan Jones had the same number of carries. Charbonnet’s health is certainly a factor, but if UCLA is going to put itself in the Pac-12 title hunt, he needs to be the guy we saw last season.
Nguyen: In the “unwanted surprises” category, I’m baffled by initial mechanical errors like not making sure the kick returner is wearing the correct uniform. With a coach who has been with the program for five years, you’d expect things to be taken care of, even in the season opener. It is not surprising that the fans are not ready to fully believe in this team. They are still making the same old mistakes.
How worried should USC fans be about the run defense?
card: Not quite DEFCON 1 yet. But not great, Bob! USC has given up an average of 177 yards per game on the ground, which could be a serious problem when it finally faces an opponent that can slow down its offense and control the clock. Outside of multi-game wrecker Tuli Tuipulotu, USC doesn’t have many strengths on the defensive end. This group should improve, but any injuries up front could make things worse as more dynamic offenses like Oregon State’s test the Trojans.
McCollough: We knew the Trojans weren’t going to be built to be run material. The biggest problem with not being able to stop the run is opponents being able to keep the ball out of Caleb Williams’ hands. That will certainly be Oregon State’s plan Saturday night.
Nguyen: Fans need to mentally prepare themselves for life on the sidelines for the rest of the season. The Trojans could have a boom-or-bust defense all year, hoping to cover up mistakes in the running game with big sacks or sacks. It has worked so far, but the model doesn’t seem to be sustainable.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson ended last season on a high note and vowed to show how much he has learned from past mistakes. What has it shown so far?
Bolch: Thompson-Robinson was steady enough to keep the Bruins undefeated, but he acknowledged that a handoff to Charbonnet during the South Alabama game and a miscommunication with Jones on the field could cost the team late in the season if not corrected. Thompson-Robinson usually gets into a better groove the deeper into the season, so I expect his best is yet to come — and UCLA will need it in three games against nationally ranked Washington, Utah and Oregon.
McCollough: DTR’s completion percentage is a career-high 72.6 and he’s averaging eight yards per carry. Especially when you think Charbonnet is limited, he does so with an inferior collection of players around him. DTR needs more help, but he’s proven 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 more interested in this conference race than I was earlier in the season when Utah, Oregon and USC looked like the only legitimate threats to take the crown. Washington’s dominant performance against No. 11 Michigan State and Washington State’s big win at Wisconsin put the Apple Cup teams in the thick of the battle. Washington’s offense has undergone one of the biggest turnarounds in the country. Michael Penix Jr. threw some talented receivers that were clearly not being used. It looks like five teams are vying for those two coveted spots in Las Vegas, and Oregon has a great chance to put itself firmly in the mix on Saturday night.
Bolch: After Week 1 losses to Utah and Oregon, who would have thought the Pac-12 could put a team in the College Football Playoff semifinals for the first time since Washington won it in 2016? The top of the conference has been strong for some time and it will make for entertaining matchups every week.
Nguyen: Pac is back, folks. I’ve been impressed with some of the non-conference performances (not you, Colorado) and there appear to be a number of legitimate championship contenders. Pacific Northwest’s rapid rise has been a big surprise, especially with Washington and Washington State going 3-0 with ranked wins under first-year coaches. Even old friend Jedd Fisch from UCLA had some positive results with Arizona. This time last year, the Wildcats lost to Northern Arizona.
card: No Pac-12 team has been more pleasantly surprised than the Huskies, who appear to have finally found a capable coach. But my biggest takeaway was that no offense in this conference — and heck, maybe the country — can keep up with USC if the Trojans are firing on all cylinders. To put it on paper, though, Caleb Williams and Co. are probably doomed to be blitzkrieged by the Beavers on Saturday.
Nguyen: Notably, Washington ranks fourth in the nation with 548.3 yards per game. USC is 11th with 520 points. UW and Oregon State both scored 18 offensive touchdowns to USC’s 17. USC leads the way with 50.7 points per game, but that includes three defensive touchdowns against Rice. So the Trojans aren’t the only high-powered offense in the Pac-12.