LOS ANGELES — For about half of football, the 2023 version is of U.S.C looked very similar to the 2022 version.
In his season opener against State of San Jose On Saturday night, the sixth-placed Trojans scored numerous points but at times struggled to keep their opponents from doing the same.
quarterback Caleb Williams began his repeated Heisman campaign by picking up where he left off, throwing for 278 yards and four touchdowns in a 56-28 win. But the redesigned defense was shaky once again, showing the team’s added talent but struggling to contain a movable quarterback.
“No matter what the result, whether it was a three-point game, whether it was a 28-point game, whether it was a 50-point game, there’s going to be that advancement to the next level,” head coach Lincoln said Riley said after the game. “And this is where we will continue to focus. There is still a lot to do and we are the right people for it.”
Last season, Williams often self-defeated inconsistent defensive performances. He got some help on Saturday when another star showed up in the form of a true freshman receiver Zachariah branch. Branch, the No. 7 recruit on the 2023 ESPN 300, took over the third quarter and, with just nine touches, managed 232 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, including a stunning 96-yard kickoff return for a score that helped to consolidate the success result.
Branch, who arrived on campus in the spring, had received rave reviews from his teammates throughout fall camp, but it was unclear how much playtime or impact he would have. After just one game, Branch can claim one of the most exciting debuts in USC football history and a role that should continue to grow.
“He made an impression on offense, he made an impression on special teams. He deserves it,” said Riley, who notably doesn’t allow newcomers to speak to the media. Branch sat next to him at the press conference. “He did a good job and didn’t try too much, which guys sometimes do in their first game.”
The 19-year-old, from Bishop Gorman High School, started his career by catching a Williams pass in the third quarter and rushing into the endzone for a 25-yard touchdown.
Later in the district, Branch unleashed his showstopper. After catching a kickoff near USC’s end zone, Branch began jogging, surveying the field in front of him as if plotting his route. Then he took off and not only dodged the defenders with his moves, but flew past them like he was playing at a completely different speed. His last move – a cutback near the 20-yard line that gave him a clear path toward the end zone – had the entire stadium gasping.
Also, Branch had to answer questions about his speed after the game.
“My fastest 40s time? I ran 4.38 at UA camp,” Branch said, quickly remembering the numbers. “On my 100th time, I ran 10.3 in my sophomore year of high school.”
Branch’s kickoff return for a touchdown was the first for a true USC rookie since Adoree’ Jackson in the 2014 Holiday Bowl – fitting considering there are many similarities between the two players. Both are listed as wide receivers but have no limit position and use incredible speed and agility to outperform defense, whether by catching the ball, running, or picking off on kickoffs and punts.
When Branch touched the ball again on a punt return a few sets later on Saturday, all eyes were on him, waiting to see what he would do next. Within a few plays, Branch had become one of the most exciting players on the field.
“You don’t have to put it into words if you say it every day, you know?” Fellow recipient Tahj Washington said of Branch’s talent.
Branch is one of several players that make up the Trojans’ Deep Receiver Room. A total of 12 players caught passes from Williams or his substitute Miller Moss on Saturday. But despite the talent at that position — and an increase in talent at almost every position this year — Williams said there was some frustration in the opener at a lack of consistency across the team.
“In the first half I just had the feeling that we didn’t reach certain calibers and things like that, but we’ll get there soon,” said Williams. “We still have a long way to go and we can do much better.”