Column: Like a breath of fresh air on a hot day, USC football feels like USC football again

USC coach Lincoln Riley celebrates with his players after a touchdown against Rice on Saturday.
USC coach Lincoln Riley celebrates with his players after a touchdown against Rice on Saturday. USC’s 66-14 victory showcased how much has changed with the team in the last 10 months.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

They flew again, across the middle, down the sidelines, from Figueroa to Vermont, swirling through the heat with heat.

They hit again, pushing, pummeling, pancaking, claiming dominance of a field they once ruled, a moment they once owned.

They connected again, grabbing bullet balls, clutching tipped balls, pick after pick after pick, wrapping their arms around a culture that had long been considered lost.


On a scorching Saturday afternoon at a Coliseum rollicking with a rebirth, with players bouncing on the sideline and fans pumping fists through the sweat, an old friend returned with a roar.

USC football feels like USC football again.

Lincoln Riley’s USC debut started with a bang in a 66-14 win over Rice that signified the program’s return to college football relevance.

Sept. 3, 2022

The outcome of the Trojans’ first game with new coach Lincoln Riley and his two-dozen transfers — a 66-14 victory over Rice — was completely expected.

What was surprising was how overwhelmingly different it seemed.

Even in 94-degree temperatures, it was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder of what life used to be like around here, a literal blast from the past.

The drudgery of Clay Helton, the darkness of Steve Sarkisian, the craziness of Lane Kiffin, all of it disappeared in a three-hour throwback to Pete Carroll.


“We understand in this city, we’ve got to go prove who we are as a team,” a boyish, grinning Riley said afterward. “We’re going to do everything we can as a team to keep working so people can’t even stand the thought of not coming to a USC football game.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP. 3, 2022. USC head coach Lincoln Riley celebrates with his daughter.
USC coach Lincoln Riley celebrates with his daughter after winning in his Trojans debut against Rice.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

These Trojans are very disciplined, very focused, very opportunistic — seriously, they had three pick-sixes — and entertainingly bold.

Did you see what happened after they won the coin toss? Defying conventional football wisdom, they elected to receive.

Give us the ball. Now.

They scored barely three minutes later on a five-yard pass from new quarterback Caleb Williams to new receiver Jordan Addison and never let up, much to the delight of a larger-than-expected crowd, some of whom lingered in the early evening shadows to serenade the Trojans as they slowly departed a crowded and celebratory postgame midfield scene.

Just like the old days.

“It’s a fun moment,” Riley said. “It’s meaningful to us all.”

The 66 points are the most they have scored in a game since — you guessed it — Carroll roamed the sideline in 2008.

Rice cornerback Sean Fresch, left, is called for interference on a pass intended for USC wide receiver Brenden Rice.
Rice cornerback Sean Fresch, left, is called for interference on a pass intended for USC wide receiver Brenden Rice during the first half.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Last night at the team meeting you could tell, they were just like, get the game here,” Riley said.

Nobody seemed more thrilled with the opportunity than Williams, the Oklahoma transfer who lived up to every bit of the hype. He threaded the needle on sideline passes, deftly found receivers over the middle, and twisting downfield on foot.

He missed on just three of 22 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns while finding eight different receivers on all kinds of different angles. He also rushed for 68 yards on several daring and spinning scrambles.

“I thought he played very much in control, very much at ease, which I think quarterbacks that are playing at a high level, oftentimes it looks like that,” said Riley, who knows something about high-level quarterbacks.

Is it too soon to drop this guy in the middle of the Heisman race? Maybe not.

“We have a lot of confidence, it’s kind of coming together … one heartbeat,” Williams said. “It takes a lot of reps, lot of maximum effort, second effort, to make it look like that.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. - SEP. 3, 2022. USC running back Austin Jones breaks free for a touchdown against Rice.
USC running back Austin Jones breaks free for a touchdown against Rice in the second half.
(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The new running backs also thumped through that heartbeat, Stanford transfer Austin Jones scoring twice including breaking two tackles on a 28-yard run, while freshman Raleek Brown bounced outside for a 14-yard touchdown that he finished with a bit of a Heisman-type pose.

All this great offense, yet the Trojans’ new look and attitude was best displayed by two plays on defense.

In the second quarter, Rice’s Cameron Montgomery broke free up the middle and was racing for a touchdown when he was caught from behind after 55 yards in an inspired effort by safety Calen Bullock.

Four plays later, Bullock grabbed a tipped pass from Rice quarterback Wiley Green and raced 93 yards for a touchdown.

It was the first of those three interception returns for touchdowns, Shane Lee picking a tipped ball and running it back 40 yards and Nick Figueroa smothering quarterback TJ McMahon into a bad pass that Ralen Goforth returned 31 yards for a score.

“It’s a fun moment,” said Riley. “I thought we maintained our energy and physicality the entire game.”

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams (13) celebrates after a 66-14 win.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates with teammates after the Trojans’ 66-14 win over Rice at the Coliseum on Saturday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

It was also heartening that, on a day so hot the USC marching band was wearing shorts, the Trojans didn’t lose their cool.

Think about it. When was the last time the USC starters didn’t commit a bunch of penalties? Through three quarters, before the backups took over, they committed just three. Add this to their zero turnovers and it’s a different scene indeed.

Justin Dedich, Trojan guard, noticed this new reality in empty seats late in the game.

“Usually fans would leave the game because we got blown out so bad,” he said. “[This time] they left because we won so well.”

It’s just one game, of course. Stanford awaits next week on The Farm. An entire autumn of potholes is spread out before them. Only by avoiding those traps can USC truly prove things have changed.

USC star quarterback Caleb Williams, an Oklahoma transfer, is a Heisman contender. This is what he has to do to win college football’s biggest prize.

Sept. 1, 2022

“We understand this is just the beginning,” said Riley. “There’s so, so much left,”

But, goodness, what a beginning.

Before the game, instead of being brought out of the tunnel by a former USC football star, the Trojans were led onto the field by former USC basketball stars Isaiah and Evan Mobley of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The football team didn’t lumber, it raced, following the hopping and sprinting basketball players into a mad sideline scrum.

Call it a fast break into a new era.

USC football feels like USC football again.