LOS ANGELES — You can feel something in the air when you’re in the midst of the start of something special. From the explosive pyrotechnic-filled entrance, to the packed Coliseum, to the Heisman montage of Caleb Williams’s epic 2022 season, there was a sense in the building that the Trojans were here to achieve something great and build upon last season’s success.
The first quarter was a tale of two sides of the ball, unfortunately picking up where USC left off last year. To start the game, the San Jose State Spartans swiftly moved across mid-field in the season’s opening drive. Fortunately, a penalty by San Jose State moved them back, and on second-and-long, Purdue transfer Jack Sullivan got the season’s first sack. The Spartans ultimately punted, opening the door for Caleb Williams to enter the game.
The Trojans came out running as Austin Jones ripped an electric 37-yard run down the right side to get the Trojans well into enemy territory. A few more nice runs by transfer Marshawn Lloyd, rookie Quinten Joyner, and Caleb Williams set up the Trojans in the red zone. On his 2nd pass attempt of the season, Williams connected with prized transfer wide receiver Dorian Singer for a 13-yard score. It was good to see USC get its feet wet early, as they marched down relatively quickly.
The second drive by the Spartans was, unfortunately, more fruitful. SJSU moved the ball across midfield with ease. After entering Trojan territory, Grinch’s crew settled in and snuffed out to screens, one going for a significant loss as newcomer Mason Cobb got his name called for the tackle. When things were looking good, 3rd-and-long continued to be the bane of USC’s first quarter, as QB Chevan Cordeiro scampered his way to the outside and took it up the sideline for a massive gain—the First quarter ended with the Trojans leading 7-nil, as the Spartans sat pretty on the Trojans 1-yard line with a first-and-goal opportunity. The Spartans out-gained the Trojans in yards 105-80 in the season’s opening quarter.
The second quarter had an uninspiring start as the Spartans punched it in from the one. Caleb and crew got the ball back off the kick-off but could only muster 2 yards. The Trojans’ second drive of the season ended with QB1 earning an intentional grounding penalty, forcing the USC special teams to punt. Not the sexiest of drives.
Grinch and crew came to play on the Spartans’ first full offensive possession in the second quarter. Working SJSU to a 3rd-and-long, Cordero attempted to bust up the gut to extend the drive. Fortunately, adjustments were made, and he was paused at the line before any escape could metastasize. Had he converted, I would’ve thrown my hat to the ground out of sheer disappointment.
Starting on their 8-yard line, the Trojans unleashed the reigning Heisman winner. After hitting Branch and Singer for small gains, Williams peppered Tahj Washington with a 9-yard pass and then a 76-yard touchdown strike that sent the USC faithful into a frenzy. Williams is responsible for the price of admission, and on the second drive of the second quarter, QB1 delivered.
Grinch and Co. continued with serious energy as the Spartans couldn’t do squatini once they got the ball back. Jamil Muhammad and Tackett Curtis starred on the drive; both were super active at the point of attack.
If you’re good, Lincoln will play you, regardless of age. Zachariah Branch showed significant flashes of why he was a top-10 recruit in the 2023 cycle. The rookie made his presence known with an excellent punt return and a big catch from Williams. The drive received an emphatic exclamation point as Austin Jones hammered one in from inside the 10 to put the Trojans up 21-7.
The following two drives ended in punts for both squads. Williams had difficulties getting the ball out, hanging inside the pocket a tad too long for my taste.
(Unrelated to football, the in-house DJ tried to get the crowd to sing “We Are Young” by FUN after USC punted. It was a valiant effort, but no one knew the words; it was super awkward.)
Kudos where kudos are due: the Spartans hit their hurry up at mid-field, and two nice passes from Cordero later, the score was 21-14. With 33 seconds left in the half, the Trojans checked out early, and the Spartans put their nuts on the bump—a Deflating way to end the half from the Cardinal and Gold.
The Trojans got the ball to start the 3rd and worked their way to mid-field, as Williams connected with Dorian Singer with a good ball. After dropping a screen, Mario Williams came up in the clutch for a 23-yard gain on 4th and manageable. Austin Jones ran it in for his second score of the game to cap off a solid opening drive for USC.
The SJSU drive was capped off by the biggest play of the day to that point for the defense. As Cordeiro and the Spartan offense entered Trojan territory, Solomon Byrd came up BIG and sacked Cordero’s lunch for a 22-yard loss. The pushback set up a 43-yard punt return by rookie Zachariah Branch, a.k.a DeSean Jackson Jr.
Marshawn Lloyd took the bull by the Horns on USC’s second drive in the 3rd and picked up 28 all-purpose yards. The Trojans made it 35-14 as the game star to that point, Zachariah Branch, caught a ball from Caleb and took it 25 yards to the house. Through three quarters, Branch had 58 in the air, 12 on the ground, and 47 return yards. We all knew the talent was there, but I didn’t have that type of performance on my bingo card.
As the sunset in SoCal and night air began to cool, Chevan Cordeiro did not. The Spartans QB hustled for 23 yards in the floor and hit Nick Nash (who made a great grab) for a 32-yard TD to cut the lead to 14.
Branch put a stamp on arguably the most outstanding college football debut I’ve ever seen, as he housed a kick return for 96 yards; it was truly out of this world. By the end of the 3rd, the Trojans led 42-21.
SJSU’s offense began falling, and USC’s defense fed off the scoring explosion and crowd energy. The Spartans had a start to the fourth quarter to forget, as they couldn’t put any points on the board. On the flip side, Caleb Williams’ night ended early as he finished 18/25 for 278 and 4 TDs after he connected with Brendan Rice for a touchdown.
Miller Moss entered the game in the fourth for Williams and kept his foot on the gas for the Trojans. Why should Branch have all the fun? Fellow freshman Quinten Joyner and Duce Robinson got involved in Moss’ first drive under center. Moss sent the Trojans over 50 points on the day as he scooted into the end zone for a four-yard run.
SJSU responded with a touchdown of their own, as Quali Conley set up a touchdown pass with a 57-yard run. Unfortunately for the Spartans, their special teams and defensive woes put the game too far out of reach.
The Spartans got the ball on an onside kick, honestly pretty swag, but failed to score, giving the Trojans the ball back with about two to go and 3 points away from covering. Good teams win, and great teams cover. Moss, left, and another freshman entered the game: the prize of the 2023 recruiting cycle, Malachi Nelson.
Covering would not be in the cards for USC, but more importantly, victory was. You can view it as you want, but this team picked up right where it left off in 2022. Caleb Williams and the offense made spectacular plays and put up points, while the defense needed help closing drives, giving up big chunk plays too frequently. The special teams for the Trojans may be the difference maker this year; however, if teams keep kicking to Branch. It was a solid week 0 win for USC, but there is much to improve.