USC showcases a new era for its football program in dominant opening win over Rice
After nine months of high hopes and delirious dreams of grandeur, Lincoln Riley stood in the Coliseum tunnel, seconds away from the start of a new chapter for the USC coach and the proud program he’d inherited. In that moment, hope sprung eternal. Everything still was in front of them.
A dismal decade of Trojans football was firmly in the rearview. A fleet of new transfer talent was in place. The foundation of a new culture had taken hold. All that remained were these last few feverish breaths of anticipation before the steamy cauldron of the Coliseum beckoned, when anyone — the coach included — still could wonder how exactly this grand experiment might come together in a genuine college football game.
The answer arrived resoundingly Saturday — first in a hail of crisp downfield passes from new quarterback Caleb Williams, then in a trio of stunning pick-sixes that all but demoralized Rice into submission. It was clear in the confidence of USC’s offense and the relentless opportunism of its defense, the two units combining for the most points USC has scored since 2008, when Pete Carroll wandered the Coliseum sideline.
The first game of the Lincoln Riley era shows how USC has returned to the ranks of college football relevance in its quest for a national title.
USC left little room for doubt in its debut, a 66-14 demolition of Rice, that a new page had been turned. As for where that story is headed, the parallels with its past prominence are sure to be drawn. But Riley wasn’t getting ahead of himself.
“It’s one of the moments, you don’t want to minimize it,” Riley said. “It’s meaningful to us all. But those of us who have been on these journeys before, this is just the beginning. There’s so, so much left obviously for us. So much better to play, so much better to coach. It’s a great start, not anything more than that, not anything less than that.”
But it was also much, much more than we’d grown accustomed to seeing from USC in recent years. These Trojans forced four turnovers while never turning the ball over themselves. They didn’t punt until the fourth quarter and didn’t commit any dumb penalties. They dominated on third down — if their offense even got to third down — which is a lot easier when you’re averaging 9.3 yards per play.
“We have a lot of confidence and we didn’t just build that confidence coming out here excited for the first game,” Williams said.
That confidence started Saturday with USC’s quarterback, who for one game lived up to the heavy expectations placed upon his shoulders since his transfer from Oklahoma in the offseason. Williams finished 19 for 22 for 249 yards and two touchdowns. His completion percentage (86.3) was the best for a USC quarterback with minimum 20 passes in more than a decade. One of those incompletions was a drop. The other two came on difficult throws in the corner of the end zone.
Otherwise, Williams was borderline perfect, even tacking on 68 yards from six carries to lead USC in rushing. When Riley resolved to replace him in the fourth quarter, Williams slyly tried to convince the coach to stay in.
By that point, USC’s defense had so thoroughly put the game out of reach for Rice that it didn’t matter who was under center.
That wasn’t the case at the start of Saturday’s scorching opener, where the temperature on the field neared 100 degrees. Rice’s first drive lasted for 16 plays and eight minutes before the Owls punched in a score. USC’s defense struggled mightily to get off the field on third down.
Then, sophomore safety Calen Bullock chased down breakaway Rice running back Cameron Montgomery two drives later, saving a touchdown that would’ve cut USC’s lead to seven. Four plays after that, on fourth down, a tipped pass floated directly to Bullock, who snagged it and didn’t stop for 93 yards until he reached the end zone.
At halftime, USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch made an appeal for more takeaways like that. He told the team he wanted 24 total over the season.
“Takeaways, that equals victories,” linebacker Ralen Goforth said, “and that’s something that we really emphasized going into the next half.”
The emphasis worked as well as Grinch could’ve imagined. Linebacker Shane Lee, who led USC in tackles (eight), caught his own tipped pass on the first drive of the second half before scampering 40 yards for a score. Goforth followed on the very next drive with a 31-yard touchdown return. Xamarion Gordon added a fourth pick for good measure on the next drive, but couldn’t take it the distance.
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.
“It’s one thing to tip a football,” Grinch said. “It’s another thing to come down with it. And it’s a whole ’nother thing to obviously go score with it. If it becomes a habit, we’ll all be really excited.”
That’s the question that now looms over USC as it takes its show on the road next Saturday at Stanford for the Pac-12 season opener: Is this really what we should expect from the Trojans under Riley?
It’s impossible to know just yet. But as Riley retreated up the tunnel Saturday night, the anxious anticipation had given way to buzzing elation. Waiting for the coach outside of USC’s locker room were university president Carol Folt and athletic director Mike Bohn, both eager to pat him on the back, knowing full well the new page they’d help turn in hiring him.
Now, it was up to Riley to do the rest. So far, so good.
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