USC begins Caleb Williams' Heisman defense with 56-28 win over San Jose State

Freshman Zachariah Branch stole the show in USC's season-opening win

USC had a little bit of an uneven start to the 2023 season. And then Caleb Williams made a Caleb Williams play, and the Trojans never looked back.

With USC and San Jose State tied midway through the second quarter, Williams found Tahj Washington behind the SJSU defense for a 76-yard touchdown. But it was no ordinary touchdown.

Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, misplayed the shotgun snap, calmly regained possession and then tossed the ball about 50 yards downfield off his back foot, hitting Washington in stride for a highlight reel touchdown.

That play set the Trojans on a path toward a 1-0 start with an eventual 56-28 victory at the LA Coliseum.

Williams had a stellar beginning to his Heisman Trophy defense as he threw for 278 yards and four touchdowns in the win, but it was a true freshman who stole the show for USC. Zachariah Branch, a five-star recruit from Las Vegas, showed off his elite speed in his college debut.

Branch caught four passes for 58 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown catch midway through the third quarter. Later in the third quarter, after San Jose State cut USC’s lead to 35-21, Branch reeled off an electric 96-yard kick return touchdown.

The return by Branch, who also had a 12-yard run and two punt returns for 47 yards on the night, extended USC’s lead to 42-21, and San Jose State was never within two touchdowns of the Trojans again.

While Branch was a standout, he was just one of an array of offensive weapons on display on Saturday night for USC. Branch was one of 12 different Trojans to catch a pass. Dorian Singer, the transfer from Arizona, caught a touchdown in the first quarter while returning receivers like Washington, Mario Williams and Brenden Rice all made plays. The running back duo of Austin Jones and South Carolina transfer MarShawn Lloyd impressed, too. There were also freshmen like Duce Robinson and Quinten Joyner who flashed.

Lincoln Riley’s offense is absolutely loaded.

USC wide receiver Dorian Singer (15) celebrates his touchdown against San Jose State with Zachariah Branch (1) on Saturday in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
USC wide receiver Dorian Singer (15) celebrates his touchdown against San Jose State with Zachariah Branch (1) on Saturday in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Still concerns with the USC defense

USC has even more talent on offense than it did a year ago, but what about the defense?

The Trojans were terrible on defense a year ago, but Riley decided to keep defensive coordinator Alex Grinch for another year while bringing in a heavy volume of transfers. The season-opening effort from Grinch’s unit was a mixed bag.

The Trojans’ personnel on defense — especially up front — was noticeably better. USC’s pass rush and overall push from its defensive line looked better, but the Trojans also lost contain on San Jose State quarterback Chevan Cordeiro too many times. For example, Cordeiro was able to scramble for a 28-yard gain on a third-and-22 play in the first quarter. That first-down conversion led to SJSU’s first score of the game.

The Trojans’ secondary also was beaten over the top by Nick Nash, SJSU’s QB-turned-receiver, too many times. Nash caught six passes for 89 yards and three touchdowns, including an incredible one-handed TD grab in the third quarter. USC bottled up Kairee Robinson, SJSU’s top running back, pretty well, but Quali Conley reeled off a 57-yard run in the fourth quarter.

In all, San Jose State accumulated 396 yards of offense and averaged 6.0 yards per play. The Trojans tackled better and the effort was evident through all four quarters.

San Jose State is a middle-of-the-road Mountain West program and probably the best team USC will face in its first three games. Nevada will visit the Coliseum next week before a visit from Stanford on Sept. 9.

There’s plenty of time to make adjustments — adjustments that are necessary if USC wants to compete for a College Football Playoff berth.