LOS ANGELES — It was a simple enough play, a run to the right with linemen and tight ends pulling to block. Travis Dye made it special, though.
The USC running back stayed behind lead blocker Malcolm Epps, using the tight end as a shield. Then he kicked off one tackler, spun away from another and slipped through the grasp of a third.
He only stopped once he had completed the 25-yard journey to the end zone, stretching his gloveless hands wide as he accepted the adulation of the Coliseum crowd of 67,226.
For a team whose passing game has been so celebrated, it was Dye and the rushing attack that fueled the seventh-ranked Trojans to a 45-17 win over Fresno State on Saturday night.
Dye rushed 11 times for 102 yards, while Austin Jones received 12 carries for 110. The pair averaged 9.2 yards per carry, while USC as a whole rushed for 233 yards (258 if you ignore Fresno State’s three sacks).
With their performances, Dye and Jones became the first pair of Trojan teammates to each rush for triple-digits since Aca’Cedric Ware and Vavae Malepeai did it against Oregon State in 2018.
“Those guys started seeing it pretty well. We had some big ones or really, really close,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “You gotta run the ball to win and win consistently and win different ways.”
It was clear early on that quarterback Caleb Williams did not have its best fastball. After recording 10 incompletions in the first two games combined, Williams matched that in the first half alone. He had overthrows of receivers, then at times held on to the ball for too long, resulting in three first-half sacks.
But still, USC (3-0) and Williams found ways to move the ball. The Trojans opened three of six on third down and converted all three fourth-down attempts, including two by Williams with his feet. And he was willing to do some dirty work, too, running downfield to block after a short completion to McRee.
But in the first half, Williams’ best work came with his feet. He used a linebacker’s momentum against him, making a quick cut and slipping through a tackle for an eight-yard score. He also converted a quarterback-sneak for a TD, the first time in his career Williams scored two touchdowns on the ground in a game.
“I try not to use my legs but that is an ability that I have,” Williams said. “I just had opportunities that opened up and the defense was giving it to me. And I just took what they were giving me.”
Fresno State (1-2) answered quickly after that sneak, though. The Bulldogs moved 75 yards in five plays, with USC safety Calen Bullock slipping before he could stop a 39-yard touchdown reception by Erik Brooks.
A third-down sack of Williams led to another Fresno State opportunity to close out the second quarter. But Epps, playing defense on the Hail Mary attempt, made an interception in the end zone as the clock hit zero to send USC into the locker room up 21-10.
USC came up with another turnover to start the second half, at much greater cost to Fresno State.
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Solomon Byrd, starting in place of injured rush edge Romello Height, came around the corner and sacked Fresno QB Jake Haener, stripping the ball and recovering it himself. But Haener’s right leg got caught underneath Byrd and crumpled from the pressure.
Haener could not put any weight on the injured leg as he was helped to the cart which took him up the tunnel to receive medical treatment.
USC took advantage of the takeaway, turning it into a 2-yard Jones touchdown run and 18-point lead. Dye’s rumbling run and a touchdown pass to Epps put the icing on the cake.
There were other things to walk away from the game thinking about, like the defense allowing 421 yards but somehow limiting the Bulldogs to three scores. But the strength of Dye and Jones, especially on a day where Williams wasn’t at his best, showed how consistent and special this offense could be.
“I knew we both had the capability of doing it,” Dye said. “He’s a great back; I like to think of myself as a great back. It doesn’t mean that we have to hate each other because we’re good backs. No, we can feed off each other. I see it as a great relationship.”