No. 8 USC overcame a late Colorado run to hold off the Buffaloes 48-41 at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado. Trojans star quarterback Caleb Williams tied a career high with six passing touchdowns, but the Trojans nearly blew a massive lead thanks to a horrendous second-half effort in all phases.
The Trojans were leading 34-7 late in the second quarter but allowed Colorado to go on a 34-14 run to cut the lead to two touchdowns early in the fourth quarter. USC was held to a field goal attempt with about six minutes remaining but missed the try, providing Colorado with more life. Buffaloes quarterback Shedeur Sanders then found Jimmy Horn Jr. for a 16-yard touchdown to cut the lead to one score.
Sanders hit on several big plays to wide receiver Omarion Miller, including completions of 65 and 44 yards. Miller finished with 196 yards and a touchdown on the day. Despite the effort from Sanders, Colorado's offense took far too long on its final drive to try and get into the end zone after handing the ball off multiple times -- calls that were met with boos from the Buffaloes faithful in attendance.
Colorado had an onside kick to try and create one more opportunity, but USC recovered the ball with ease and Williams was able to kneel out the clock.
The second half flailing overshadowed what should have been a dominant performance from USC. Trojans receiver Tahj Washington posted 117 yards and a touchdown, while Brenden Rice added two touchdowns on five catches. Running back MarShawn Lloyd averaged 6.5 yards per carry but was handed the ball just 13 times. Williams threw for 403 yards in the win.
Lincoln Riley's game management left much to be desired throughout. The Trojans scored their final points with 2:14 remaining in the fourth quarter and turtled afterward. Williams completed just two of his final six pass attempts, including the interception that nearly swung the game. USC's last three drives ended with an interception, a punt and a missed field goal.
USC loses focus
Lincoln Riley is 71-13 as a head coach across his time at Oklahoma and USC. He is unquestionably one of the best coaches in college football. At the same time, however, Riley's teams struggle to maintain consistent focus late in games.
Famously, USC gave up 16 points in the final 4:07 of the Cotton Bowl to lose against Tulane. In a 43-42 loss to Utah, USC was outscored 15-7 in the fourth quarter. Even in Riley's final game at Oklahoma, the Sooners gave up 13 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to lose their first Bedlam game in seven years.
It's easy to point to the defense, and with good reason. Things have not clicked at any point under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. At the same time, USC went from scoring five touchdowns in seven first-half drives to going scoreless in the fourth quarter. Most teams won't spot USC a 27-point lead. This is a head coaching issue that Riley has to solve.
Colorado has deeper issues
There's no question Colorado missed Travis Hunter on Saturday. He's the best player on the Buffaloes roster and arguably the best non-quarterback in the conference. Even if Colorado had its star two-way standout, it wouldn't of made enough of a difference to upset USC. Colorado has deeper issues than the absence of Hunter, such as poor offensive line play and a secondary that has gotten carved up against better competition. Colorado transformed its roster by using the transfer portal to get skill position players, but the problem is it's hard to find quality offensive linemen in the portal. There is no quick fix that's going to help protect Sanders the rest of the season, and he can only do so much in the pocket if he's not being protected properly.
A positive on the Colorado front was former five-star cornerback Cormani McClain getting extensive action for the first time in his college career. McClain recorded a pass deflection in his only recorded stat on the day. Colorado will need Hunter back as soon as possible to help aid the secondary that USC exposed. The goal at this point should be bowl eligibility, and there are winnable games the rest of the way against Arizona State, Arizona and Stanford, but there's nothing the elder Sanders can do this season that's going to fix the issues on the offensive line. Colorado's offensive line has allowed 26 sacks this season, which is tied for the worst in the FBS.
Jury is still out on the USC defense
Coming into the season, USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was under heavy pressure to have his defense perform. The returns through the first month of the season haven't been great and it could hold USC back from being a serious national championship contender. The Trojans defense -- mostly in garbage time -- allowed 564 total yards. That would be OK if it was a one-off performance, but time-and-time again the USC defense has let less talented teams such as Arizona State, San Jose State and now Colorado stick around because of the defensive incompetency. The USC pass rush is one of the best units in the Pac-12, but what's holding back the Trojans from taking the next step is the secondary. Coming into the game, USC was tied for 69th in the FBS in passing yards allowed, and that number is certain to go up after allowing Sanders to throw for 404 yards.
What takes some of the pressure off the USC defense is having a generational talent such as Williams. There's going to be a time when USC plays a better offense than Colorado (specifically against Notre Dame on Oct. 14, Washington on Nov. 4 and Oregon on Nov. 11) and will need the defense to put together stops to win the game. The USC offense can score with anyone in the country, but the defensive remains a massive question mark heading into the meat of the Pac-12 schedule.
Williams balls out
The second-half flop overshadowed what should have been a historic moment for the reigning Heisman Trophy winner playing in a high-profile time slot. Williams threw for more than 400 yards and six touchdowns for the first time since 2021. Despite the late issues, Williams was easily the best player on the field.
Perhaps the most impressive characteristic of Williams is his ability to spread the ball around the field. Williams completed passes to 10 different receivers and primarily thrived in the intermediate game. Through five games, Williams has arguably been more impressive than his Heisman Trophy season. The only question is whether USC can fight its way back into national contention.
Colorado has legs again
One week ago, Colorado was blasted off the field against Oregon. At halftime, it seemed that might happen again. Instead, the Buffaloes showed real fight against a top-10 opponent and proved they will have at least some staying power in the Pac-12. It was always unlikely that Colorado would have a shot in these first two Pac-12 games, but showing some promise keeps the Coach Prime train on the track.