USC eviscerates Stanford to start out strong in conference play

The 103rd (and maybe final) matchup between the in-state rivals was a walk in the park for the Trojans, and a final one to forget for the Cardinal.

Rice runs into the end zone with a Stanford defender on the ground behind him.

The last time Stanford paid a visit to the Coliseum was Sept. 11, 2021 — almost two years ago to the day. One might remember that 42-28 Cardinal victory as the end of the Clay Helton era at USC, perhaps a low point in the program’s history.

Oh, how much has changed since that disastrous day for the Trojans.

In perhaps the final installment of one of the longest rivalries on the West Coast, USC trounced Stanford 56-10 Saturday night at home to open Pac-12 play. With the Trojans off to the Big Ten and the Cardinal joining the ACC next season, USC will get to hold bragging rights over its California counterpart for the foreseeable future.

“This is potentially the last USC-Stanford game for a while … This was a series in recent years that went a little bit of a different way,” USC head coach Lincoln Riley said. “It was important to us to seize that moment and opportunity and we did it.”

It was clear from the get-go how far USC has come since its embarrassing home loss at the hands of the Cardinal two seasons prior.

Three minutes in, junior quarterback Caleb Williams steamrolled Stanford fifth-year cornerback Zahran Manley to complete a 21-yard touchdown run. Three minutes later, an interception by redshirt senior safety Max Williams and a rushing score by redshirt junior running back MarShawn Lloyd had the Trojans up by 14. Redshirt senior running back Austin Jones, who has been somewhat of a mentor to Lloyd, added a third rushing touchdown just before the end of the quarter to give USC a 21-0 lead.

Ironically, Jones had 67 yards from scrimmage in that aforementioned matchup in 2021, though he was playing for the Cardinal that time around.

Freshman wide receiver Zachariah Branch then joined the party with a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown, his second in just three games this season. It’s probably safe to say that teams are going to stop kicking at the young speedster sooner rather than later. Who in their right mind wants to try tackling this?

It shouldn’t be a surprise that any time a teammate is asked about Branch, “special” is a word that comes up repeatedly.

To make things even uglier, redshirt senior Jamil Muhammad nabbed a strip sack a few plays later. That was soon followed by a vintage Caleb Williams touchdown, as he scrambled out of the pocket and unleashed a laser on the run that found junior receiver Dorian Singer in the back of the end zone. Somehow, Williams makes plays like that look routine, despite the fact that he’s one of the only people on this planet that can pull them off.

On a night when USC honored the Little League World Series championship team from El Segundo, there probably should have been a mercy rule to put Stanford out of its misery sooner.

Nevertheless, Williams didn’t feel like letting up, tossing an absolute bomb to senior receiver Brendan Rice for a 75-yard touchdown on the Trojans’ next drive. And just before halftime, redshirt sophomore tight end Lake McRee caught a touchdown pass to give USC a — checks notes — 49-3 lead at the break. In fact, the USC offense scored so much that Traveler was too tired to run out for the Trojans’ last two scores of the half.

“We played a really, really good first half. All three sides of the ball really surged and then got the momentum and kept it,” Riley said. “It was fun to see the team playing at a high level together for a sustained period.”

Playing just the first half, Williams was 19 of 22 passing for 300 yards with three touchdowns, in addition to his opening score with his legs. Comparatively, Stanford sophomore quarterbacks Ashton Daniels (who left with an injury in the second quarter) and Justin Lamson threw for a combined 50 yards and were 3 of 13 passing in the opening two quarters.

Even with the game totally out of hand in the second half, the USC defense continued to put together a strong effort. Though Stanford got all the way down to the 1-yard line in its opening drive of the third quarter, a pass breakup by junior safety Calen Bullock forced a turnover on downs to keep the Cardinal out of the end zone until garbage time.

“We’re not looking at the score,” USC redshirt senior safety Bryson Shaw said. “We have a certain standard we want to meet; we haven’t hit that standard. … We want to be known as a defensive football team.”

Albeit against a much inferior opponent playing a backup quarterback for much of the game, the USC defense put up an encouraging performance for the second straight week. Granted, Stanford did have several wide-open pass-catchers that either dropped passes or had throws go over their heads. Still, the Trojans limited explosive plays fairly well and forced three turnovers.

Although Stanford held USC to seven points in the second half, barely any offensive starters played so much as a snap. And with a bye week coming up, it didn’t hurt for Riley to give his playmakers as much rest as possible, especially given the Trojans’ brutal schedule in the latter half of the season.

Williams and his teammates aren’t looking too far ahead, though. It’s clear that the Trojans still feel that they haven’t yet played to their full potential.

“It’s hard to win football games. Sometimes it looks easy, but it is hard. … You treat every team the same,” Williams said. “I’m going out there trying to kill. … We’re trying to make everybody feel our pain and play on our own terms.”

USC has a bye week coming up, followed by its first road game of the season at Arizona State on Saturday, Sept. 23.