Caleb Williams and USC showcase their playoff ambitions in blowout win over Nevada

Los Angeles, California September 2, 2023-USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws a touchdown.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams throws a touchdown pass during the first quarter of the Trojans’ 66-14 win over Nevada at the Coliseum on Saturday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Of all the touchdowns USC scored — and there were many in a 66-14 rout over Nevada on Saturday at the Coliseum — there’s a clear choice for Lincoln Riley’s favorite. Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, the 6-foot-2, 275-pound defensive lineman, trotting into the end zone after returning a fumble sent the USC coach leaping into the air in a euphoric sideline celebration.

“When big people score,” Riley said with a slight grin, “football’s more fun.”

After an underwhelming season opener, the No. 6 Trojans (2-0) played like a team with playoff hopes.

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Quarterback Caleb Williams so casually cut up the Nevada defense that he could retire to the sideline with 2 minutes 12 seconds remaining in the third quarter after passing for 319 yards, five touchdowns and a comfortable 42-7 lead. Including backup Miller Moss’ seven completions on 10 passes, 14 USC players caught a pass and six scored, led by two touchdowns from Tahj Washington.

Even the much-maligned defense recovered from an embarrassing touchdown on Nevada’s first possession to hold the Wolf Pack scoreless for 10 consecutive drives during USC’s run of 45 consecutive points. Ta’ufo’ou punctuated the scoring surge, returning a fumble forced by freshman Braylan Shelby 23 yards to put the Trojans up 52-7. It was the Simi Valley native’s first touchdown ever.

“It’s like a dream come true to get a touchdown for the defensive line,” Ta’ufo’ou said.

USC defensive lineman Stanley Ta'ufo'ou celebrates with teammates after returning a fumble for a touchdown.

USC defensive lineman Stanley Ta’ufo’ou, left, celebrates with teammates after returning a fumble for a touchdown in the fourth quarter Saturday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The Trojans overwhelmed Nevada (0-1) from the start, scoring on a surgical, four-play, 79-yard first drive. Williams added another highlight to his Heisman reel, escaping pressure to his right, tiptoeing the sideline and flicking a 30-yard pass toward receiver Dorian Singer, who hauled in the ball with one hand.

“I was yelling at him to throw it away,” Riley said. “Sometimes I’m mad when he doesn’t listen to me. This time I was glad he didn’t listen to me.”

The jokes flowed easily after the win — like receiver Mario Williams teasing freshman Duce Robinson for finally running with his knees up during his 71-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter — but the work is only beginning. The comprehensive rout still is far from what the Trojans will need to conquer the Pac-12 in their final year in the conference.

After successfully avoiding any pitfalls against the Wolf Pack — a team that went 2-10 last season and lost their quarterbacks coach less than two weeks ago — USC begins conference play against Stanford next Saturday at the Coliseum.

“You just gotta continue to climb throughout the year,” Riley said. “I do think we took some real positive steps tonight, but in college football, every week’s its own story.”

Running back MarShawn Lloyd bounced back from a nervous USC debut to stake his claim to the starting role. The South Carolina transfer had a team-high seven carries for 76 yards and his first touchdown at USC, while returning back Austin Jones was limited to two carries for 19 yards.

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Showing much-needed depth on defense, the Trojans overcame the loss of three inside linebackers to hold Nevada to 49 rushing yards on 38 carries.

Senior linebacker Mason Cobb and returning starter Eric Gentry watched from the sideline with injuries, and the linebacker position got even thinner after freshman starter Tackett Curtis was ejected for targeting during the second quarter. Raesjon Davis, who started in Cobb’s place, teamed with Shane Lee to anchor the defense for the rest of the game.

After working through a nagging training camp injury that cost him his starting role, Lee led the team with 10 tackles and one sack.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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