Branch, offensive newcomers steal show in USC football opener

On the other hand, the USC defense continued to leave a lot to be desired.

Photograph of Branch and Singer jumping in the air for a high five.

USC boasts some of the hardest players to tackle in all of college football.

We all grew accustomed to junior quarterback Caleb Williams’ miraculous escaping acts during his Heisman campaign last season. Freshman receiver Zachariah Branch and redshirt junior transfer running back MarShawn Lloyd, just to name a couple, both impressed with their tackle-breaking abilities in their Trojan debuts.

The issue is that the USC defense still has issues tackling, well, just about everyone. Despite the 56-28 final score against San Jose State seeming like a blowout on paper, the Trojans continued to show some of the same defensive deficiencies that have plagued them in past years.

But, let’s start with the fun stuff first.

USC head coach Lincoln Riley showed an early willingness to put USC’s new skill players in action from the get-go. Three different running backs and nine receivers earned snaps on the Trojans’ opening drive — seven of those 12 skill players are either freshmen or offseason transfers making their USC debut. For context, USC lists 10 total receivers and four running backs on its depth chart, so Riley gave almost all of his weapons a chance to see the field.

“We got the chance to play a lot of guys tonight, which was a big focus. You saw a lot of lineup changes on both sides, probably as aggressively as we’ve done in a first game,” Riley said. “Both building for the future and in terms of what the guys had done through fall camp, it was going to be important to play a lot of guys tonight, and we did that.”

Branch was the highlight of those newcomers, showcasing the speed and agility that made him a five-star recruit on a 25-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the third quarter.

Still not impressed? How about this 96-yard kickoff return a few minutes later?

“I didn’t really have any expectations,” Branch said about his mentality heading into his college debut. “Coach Riley and the rest of the staff just told me to go out there and don’t try to do too much; execute your job and I mean the rest will follow.”

That’s a true freshman, by the way, who ran a 10.3-second 100-meter dash as a high school sophomore. As expected, he has impressed several teammates. According to USC rush end Jamil Muhammad, even a Spartan defender marveled, “Oh, he’s gone,” midway through the kickoff return.

“He’s been showing that, day in, day out,” redshirt senior Tahj Washington said of Branch. “It was great to see everyone get to see what he’s been doing.”

“I felt like he (Branch) earned it — made an impact on offense, made an impact on special teams,” Riley added. “I thought he did a good job of not trying to do too much, which guys in their first game sometimes will do. I thought his patience, especially on the return, you saw a lot of patience there, which was key.”

The Trojans’ endlessly deep skill position corps have plenty more where that came from.

Lloyd’s stat line of nine rushes for 42 yards doesn’t jump off the page, but his elusiveness allowed him to consistently turn 2-yard carries into 5. Another five-star recruit, freshman receiver Duce Robinson, caught three passes for 44 yards. Meanwhile, redshirt senior running back Austin Jones, now the wily old veteran of the skill group, added a pair of scores on the ground while averaging 9 yards per carry.

Oh, and by the way, you simply can’t forget about Williams, and it didn’t take long for him to remind everyone why. Deep in his own territory midway through the second quarter, Williams fumbled the snap. Most mere mortal quarterbacks would just throw it away in this circumstance.

But not Caleb Williams.

Instead, he picked up the loose ball and chucked it downfield. Redshirt senior receiver Tahj Washington found the other end of the throw and took it for a 76-yard touchdown, the longest of Williams’ career.

Now, we all knew that the Trojans’ offense was going to continue to dominate with Williams and his deep group of weapons. That wasn’t the big question mark for Riley’s squad heading into this season. That honor would belong to fixing a porous defense that cost USC a spot in the College Football Playoff last season. And, frankly, the Trojans didn’t show a ton of improvement on that side of the ball to open 2023.

San Jose State ran for 7.7 yards per carry in the first quarter, much of it coming on scrambles by senior quarterback Chevan Cordeiro to extend drives. Cordeiro escaped the pocket for 28 yards on third and 22, a big change in momentum leading to the Spartans’ first touchdown. Additionally, six of the Spartans’ 27 runs went for 10 or more yards, another bad mark for the Trojan defense.

“We just got out of our rushing lanes, I think that’s something we can get better at,” Muhammad said.

Still, USC should have been able to break away by halftime, especially once it got the ball back with 1:35 in the second quarter already up 21-7. Instead, a sack deep in Trojan territory gave SJSU good field position with 27 seconds to go. Cordeiro then cashed in on broken coverage with a deep touchdown pass to redshirt junior receiver Nick Nash to reach the break trailing by just a score.

“The biggest disappointment was the end of the half, when we were really dominating the football game and to have the two series of bad football,” Riley said. “The busted coverage there on the last play before half was inexcusable. Finishing in those moments when you’ve played a solid half, and to give a team momentum like that coming in was obviously very disappointing.”

From missed tackles to blown coverage, in addition to eight penalties for 57 yards, it appears that USC still hasn’t done enough to address the self-inflicted wounds that are holding this team back.

“It is a lot to work on, but the sky’s the limit. You’ve seen those plays where we’re all on our stuff,” senior linebacker Mason Cobb said. “So we’re just trying to make sure to limit those mistakes. … We’re right there, just got to finish.”

To give credit to the Spartans, Cordeiro is one of the most experienced quarterbacks in the nation, as Saturday marked the start of his sixth collegiate season. He led the Mountain West’s best passing offense last season with San Jose State. But, Cordeiro simply isn’t a Bo Nix or Michael Penix Jr.-level talent. In a Pac-12 conference with so many top quarterbacks, USC clearly has a long way to go on defense if it wants to keep winning.

The Trojans did show some improvement in the second half, holding SJSU to 1-for-6 on third and fourth downs, compared to 4-for-8 in the first half. They were also able to limit Cordeiro’s scrambling ability a little better as the game wore on. Nevertheless, USC didn’t do nearly enough to erase that big question mark that still hangs over the unit.

But Riley remains optimistic.

“It’s going to be a climb,” Riley said. “I like what I see out there in terms of our good plays. … We will continue to improve the baseline. The ceiling for that group is much higher than it was 12 months ago.”