USC is undefeated but thinks it can be better

LOS ANGELES — After USC improved to 6-0 for the first time in 16 years with a 30-14 win over Washington State on Saturday, first-year head coach Lincoln Riley could not say enough about how he has enjoyed coaching this team.

“This team, we gotta keep doing it, but we continue to get better. We continue to lean on each other,” Riley said. “The amount of time I spend on culture, individual issues, stuff like that during the season has been minimal. … I think we’re all having a helluva lot of fun right and enjoying playing the game.”

But for the players, particularly on the offensive side of the ball, there seemed to be a sense that not everything was operating as cleanly as designed.

Look no farther than comments made by running back Travis Dye when he was asked if the team had resolved the energy problems that concerned him after the prior win over Arizona State.

“I felt like we didn’t come out as flat as we did last week,” Dye said in a tepid endorsement. “There’s still a lot of things to work on energy-wise. But I feel like we came out with a little bit better energy than last week.”

In a lot of ways, USC played well on offense. The line limited Washington State to one sack and five tackles for loss, well below the Cougars’ season averages. And USC’s 181 rushing yards were the most by a Washington State opponent this year.

But the four three-and-outs lingered in USC’s mind. So did the 6-for-15 mark on third down. And the 5.3 yards per play. And the three field goals the offense had to settle for.

“We have yet to show what we really are capable of,” receiver Brenden Rice said. “And we’re going to go back to work on Monday and we’re going to get this thing right.”

Part of it starts with quarterback play. Sophomore Caleb Williams, who came into the season with so much Heisman hype, was merely pedestrian for the second time in three games. He completed 15 of 29 passes for only 188 yards.

For the second time this season, he did not speak to media following the game. The other occurrence: When he went 16-for-36 for 180 yards against Oregon State.

But he was not the only issue in the passing. Were there overthrows? Yes, most notably on a deep ball to Jordan Addison after USC fell behind at home for the first time this season. Did he sometimes settle for running out of bounds for a loss of yardage instead of throwing the ball away? Yes.

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But there were dropped passes, too, even from the sure-handed Mario Williams on wide-open crossing routes.

“Consistency in catching the ball. Consistency in routes,” Rice said. “If we fix up all those things, we’ll be a dominant force, the one that we know we all are capable of.”

Rice is usually a pretty chipper guy with a megawatt smile, but he spoke softly as he addressed the media Saturday. Even when asked about how USC took advantage of Washington State penalties, he quickly turned the answer around to the four flags drawn by the Trojan offense.

“On our end, we had a couple penalties, as well,” Rice said. “We need to go fix that. We definitely need to fix that because honestly it took away from our type of football that we want to play.”

It was a dour post-game performance for an offense that just earned bowl eligibility in the minimum games required. But for a program that in recent years has celebrated just scraping by to victory, it’s not an insignificant change of tune.