Caleb Williams passed for 278 yards and four touchdowns in his return from his Heisman Trophy season, and freshman Zachariah Branch made an electrifying debut with a 96-yard kickoff return and a 25-yard reception for touchdowns in No. 6 USC’s 56-28 victory over San Jose State on Saturday night.
Dorian Singer, Tahj Washington and Brenden Rice also caught TD passes, and Austin Jones rushed for two more scores as USC opened its second season under Lincoln Riley with another impressive offensive performance that easily covered the Trojans’ persistent defensive flaws.
Williams won USC’s eighth Heisman last season, and he looked typically smooth and elusive as he began what’s likely to be his final collegiate season by leading six TD drives in eight series. Williams was 18-for-25 without an interception.
Branch was an immediate phenomenon in his first game out of Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School, making four catches for 58 yards — none better than his athletic catch-and-run for a score on a drive set up by his 35-yard punt return. Branch then broke it open with his kickoff return down the Spartans’ sideline in the third quarter, dodging tackles all the way home.
San Jose State’s Nick Nash caught three touchdown passes from Chevan Cordeiro, who passed for 198 yards and rushed for 52 more.
After last season’s dramatic turnaround under Riley ended with back-to-back losses, the Trojans began the sequel with glimpses of what certainly looks like another dominant offense capable of winning the Pac-12 in USC’s final year in the league.
Riley and his coaching staff also appeared to be treating their Week 0 opener as an audition for bigger games. The Trojans rotated players extensively on both sides of the ball, notably using a different group on the offensive line on nearly every possession.
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Williams’ first completion was a 13-yard TD pass to Singer, the prolific Arizona transfer, during the opening drive. Williams then showed off his famed poise and playmaking originality in the second quarter when he dropped a shotgun snap, corralled it and flung a stunning 76-yard touchdown pass to Washington.
Cordeiro hit Nash with a 28-yard TD pass just 8 seconds before halftime to trim USC’s lead to 21-14, setting off a few grumbles in the Coliseum. But Williams confidently led a drive ending in Jones’ second TD to open the second half.
The Trojans played their earliest season opener since 1996 because USC and BYU decided last year to scrap a meeting scheduled for November 2023, leaving the Trojans looking for a relatively late replacement. USC remained unbeaten in openers at the Coliseum since 1997, and Riley is unbeaten at home (8-0).
Freshman quarterback Malachi Nelson, Williams’ expected successor in 2024, made his USC debut on the final series.
San Jose State: Nash, a multitalented veteran who moved to receiver full-time last season after he lost a quarterback competition to Cordeiro, looks poised for a breakout year. The Orange County native caught only 11 passes in his first four years.
USC: Coordinator Alex Grinch’s defense still has plenty of work to do, particularly against mobile quarterbacks such as Cordeiro. While the defensive front looked much better, the other two levels were unimpressive. They’ve got time to address it, but Notre Dame is only five games away.
The Trojans seem likely to stay in the same spot, since this game didn’t reveal anything voters didn’t already know when they picked the preseason AP Top 25.
San Jose State: Hosts Oregon State on Sunday, Sept. 3.
USC: Hosts Nevada on Saturday, Sept. 2.
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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