Well, it’s a start.
USC dusted off the cobwebs in a 56-28 victory over San José State on Saturday at the Coliseum but immediately shifted focus back to the practice field. The Trojans know that their performance won’t be good enough for a College Football Playoff berth.
“We were a bit inconsistent tonight, especially in the first half,” said quarterback Caleb Williams, who completed 18 of 25 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns. “That was a key sense of frustration, [the] inconsistency.”
The No. 6 Trojans (1-0) unveiled their newest playmaker in Zachariah Branch, and the five-star prospect saved the team from its lackluster first half by becoming the first USC player to score off a kickoff return and catch a touchdown pass in the same game since Adoree’ Jackson in 2016.
Here are four takeaways from the game:
Mix and match
In some ways, it felt like USC treated the season opener as an unofficial scrimmage. After a competitive training camp, coaches planned to test the Trojans with different lineups and stoke position battles, creating some hiccups early.
The biggest ongoing experiment is still at offensive line, where the Trojans switched combinations every drive. Freshman Alani Noa started at left guard and redshirt senior Gino Quinones got the surprise start at right guard where he was listed as a backup on the team’s depth chart released during the week. On USC’s second drive, which ended in a three-and-out with a third-down sack, Wyoming transfer Emmanuel Pregnon replaced Noa and Washington State transfer Jarrett Kingson subbed in for Quinones. The coaching staff also tried Kingston at right guard with Quinones at left, and later put in redshirt sophomore Mason Murphy at right tackle. That was all before the fourth-quarter blowout brought complete line changes.
The rotating door of linemen was in the game plan, center Justin Dedich said, so the group practiced for the situation. It’s a positive, Riley maintained, because it means the Trojans have multiple starting-caliber players. Yet he also admitted the coaching staff will have big decisions to find the optimal five-player combination later in the season.
Just one game in, Riley is happy to fuel the heightened competition.
“We don’t want guys feeling comfortable,” Riley said. “We want guys pressing knowing that they need to get better for the team and they need to get better to continue to get reps. It’ll be expected of the O-line and every other group.”
Down in front
USC’s rebuilt defensive front didn’t ace its first impression, but showed progress in the run game. With defensive line transfers Bear Alexander, Kyon Barrs and Anthony Lucas starting in their USC debuts next to returning edge rusher Solomon Byrd, the Trojans allowed just 94 rushing yards in 23 carries through the first three quarters before digging deep into their bench. The 4.1 yards per rush is an improvement from last year’s defense that allowed five yards per carry.
“The run game, you gotta earn it, you gotta go earn it on us,” said edge rusher Jamil Muhammad, who had three tackles, a forced fumble, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry.
Before Quali Conley ripped off runs of 57 and 36 yards late in the fourth quarter to double San José State’s rushing totals, quarterback Chevan Cordeiro was the team’s primary running threat. The Mountain West Conference preseason offensive player of the year rushed for 52 net yards on 10 carries, including a 28-yard scamper on third-and-22 play in the first quarter that set up San José State’s first touchdown.
Cordeiro's success on the ground is an early red flag for the Trojans, who know he won't be their only dual-threat opponent this season.
“We just got out of our rush lanes,” Muhammad said. “I think that’s something we can get better at as a defense, for sure … because out of 12 games, we probably won’t play not one non-running quarterback.”
The biggest disappointment for USC was the busted coverage with eight seconds left in the second quarter that allowed San José State to pull within one touchdown going into halftime, Riley said.
Spartans receiver Nick Nash came off the line of scrimmage unchallenged and ran untouched for a 29-yard touchdown. Safety Max Williams just looked around toward his teammates as the Spartans celebrated. Riley called the mistake “inexcusable.”
USC was penalized four times on defense and once on special teams. After 29 takeaways fueled the defense last year, the Trojans failed to create a turnover on defense Saturday. Sophomore cornerback Domani Jackson had a would-be interception glance off his fingertips.
Off to a strong start
Branch’s electric performance stole the show, but his dynamic debut wasn’t the only one to show the potential of the 2023 recruiting class that was ranked seventh nationally by 247 Sports.
Noa became USC's first true freshman to start at left guard in a season opener since Toa Lobendahn in 2014. In an offensive line rotation full of experienced returners or transfers, the 6-foot-4, 325-pound Sacramento native provides youthful innocence, Dedich said. Before the game, Noa shyly asked Dedich if the senior captain ever gets nervous.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, a little bit, but you’ll be all right, big dog,’” Dedich said. “He’s going to be a phenomenal player. He did really well. … It’s great that he has that film now, he can go watch it, learn from it, learn from those experiences. That’s the best teacher.”
Tackett Curtis, the first true freshman to start at inside linebacker in a season opener for USC since Cameron Smith in 2015, finished with two tackles.
Off the bench, freshman receiver Duce Robinson had three catches for 44 yards while Ja’Kobi Lane and Makai Lemon each had one catch.
Even quarterback Malachi Nelson, a five-star prospect from Los Alamitos High who enrolled early for spring camp, saw action, completing one of his three passes. With Williams entrenched as the starter and redshirt sophomore Miller Moss providing backup, it’s unlikely Nelson will see much more of the field as he adapts to the college level, but players can appear in up to four games while retaining their redshirt status.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.