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Instant Reaction: USC offense and defense star in Lincoln Riley’s debut

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The Trojans came out and dominated in the debut performance of the Lincoln Riley era, burying the Rice Owls 66-14. The offense was electric all afternoon, hardly ever slowed down by the Rice defense, led by a stellar outing from Caleb Williams. The defense started slow, but ripped off three pick-sixes and four total interceptions, putting the game away for good.

Turning point of the game

Although the Trojans separated early and ran away with this one on the dynamism of the offense, Calen Bullock’s 92-yard pick-six stands out as the moment of the day for the Trojans. Rice was on the verge of bringing the game within a single score again, threatening the Trojan defense in the red zone. Bullock’s timely play not only prevented the Owls from closing the gap, it blew USC’s lead wide open, giving the team a comfortable margin through the remainder of the game. Given the noticeable struggles on the defensive side of the ball for the Trojans, Bullock’s pick-six also came as a welcome momentum shift for the USC defense. It was a key moment for the confidence of the unit, although the problems on that side of the ball remain evident. The Trojans followed up with two more pick-sixes to open the second half, but you gotta credit Bullock for opening the floodgates.

Offensive player of the game

Caleb Williams performed just as advertised, dissecting the Rice defense with ease throughout the day. He was a near flawless 19/22 with 249 yards and two touchdowns, along with 6 nifty carries for 68 yards (a block in the back penalty shaved 10 more yards off that total). Williams’ accuracy is truly special- his ball placement was practically perfect on nearly every throw at each level of the field. His presence of mind in the pocket also stood out, as did his decision making, seemingly making the right read on most every snap. The arm talent the sophomore possesses was clear for everyone to see as well, evidenced on a number of off-platform dimes and frozen ropes towards the sideline. Let’s be clear here- this was no defensive test of any seriousness, but Williams performed exactly as you would want him to against this level of competition.

Defensive player of the game

Although the Trojan defense comes into the year with a dearth of proven talent on the defensive side of the ball, Calen Bullock is one of the few players who entered the season with an expectation to shine. The sophomore safety did not disappoint in his first action of the new year, covering masterfully on the back end and delivering an impact performance as the backstop tackler. Bullock had a monster series in the second quarter where he showed off the distinct facets of his skillset. He began with a 40-yard chasedown of a Rice running back running free up the middle, accelerating to save the touchdown from behind despite being screened out of the play at first by the umpire. He followed with a strong run tackle to prevent a redzone first down, before snagging an interception on a 3rd down deflection, rocketing up the field in the opposite direction for the Trojans’ first defensive score of the year, as well as the first of his own career. Bullock played a brilliant game from the back end of the defense, where playing assignment-sound football is critical to the job. He hardly made a mistake on the day, and made plenty of impact plays along the way.

Play of the game

There are a lot of potential choices to go with, but I’ll take Raleek Brown’s explosive 2nd quarter touchdown. Brown’s potential is tantalizing, and everyone with their eyes on USC this season is watching to see what he does in his first season as part of Lincoln Riley’s offense. It didn’t take long for Brown to put his talents on display- ripping off a 14 yard touchdown on a play that looked like it should have been dead behind the line. With a defensive end who must have been nearly 100 lbs heavier than him right in his face at the mesh point, Brown stuck his leg in the ground and exploded towards the sideline. With the defender ready to engulf him, Brown deployed a stiff arm on the much larger player and broke free, zooming towards the sideline before hitting his second gear en route to the endzone. It was a pure exhibition of individual ability and athleticism, and Brown would go on to have a few more of those before the day was over. Whereas the Trojan’s other offensive scores of the day were short runs blocked well or well-designed short passes, Brown’s touchdown play was a spectacular display of skill

Why USC won…

The Trojan offense was simply too talented and too well designed for the Owls to keep up with. At no point did it seem like the Owls had any capacity to slow down Riley’s offense- USC marched up and down the field with impunity. Caleb Williams had all day to throw and was able to put the ball wherever he wanted; meanwhile, the Trojan running backs found plenty of lanes for sizable gains throughout the day. Although the pick-sixes blew the game open, the USC offense’s dominance was palpable from the start. There was no way for Rice to handle the onslaught, and there was no other way for this game to end.

What it means for the Trojans …

This game was always supposed to be a gimme for USC- the blowout that ensued was certainly the kind of start this team wanted to get off to, but it wasn’t a shock. The offense is every bit as dynamic as could be hoped for – that much is clear. Despite the level of competition it went up against, the effectiveness of the scheme, talent at the skill positions, competence of the offensive line, and brilliance of Caleb Williams were all evident. The offseason expectations for the offense are now validated – now it’s up to them to maintain those expectations against much tougher competition. On the other side of the ball, the Trojans must know that the front 7 needs to be more consistent. There were flashes of good play up front, especially in the second half, but gap-discipline in the run game was questionable and the zone coverage from the linebacking corps seemed suspect more often than I would have liked. Of course, the opportunism of the defense was to be commended on the day, as they forced 4 turnovers and took 3 back to the house for scores. However, most of those plays could be attributed to serious mistakes by the offense, and can’t be counted upon for duplication against better opposition. There’s a lot to clean up still, and the rotations have yet to be settled on that side of the ball. All in all, this was more or less the best start USC could have hoped for. There’s clearly a lot to work on, but this was certainly the right foot to start out on. The energy and excitement on the team was evident from kickoff- when was the last time you watched USC handle a game this confidently from start to finish, even in the season opener? The vibes are immaculate for now- we’ll see how they evolve after next week’s clash with a more physical Stanford squad.

Notes

– Raleek Brown suffered an injury at the end of a long catch-and-run in the fourth quarter. He was later brought into the locker room on a cart with his shoes off.

– Romello Height was hit with a targeting call in the second quarter and subsequently ejected. Height launched himself at the QB and made contact with the crown of his helmet to the offensive player’s facemask- although unfortunate, the call was probably correctly made. As the penalty occurred in the first half, Height will be able to play next week.

Stats

Passing

Caleb Williams: 19/22, 249 yards, 2 Touchdowns, 0 INT

Miller Moss 6/7, 81 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs

Rushing

Caleb Williams: 6 carries, 68 yards

Austin Jones: 4 carries, 48 ​​yards, 2 TDs

Raleek Brown: 6 carries, 36 yards, 1 TD

Travis Dye: 5 carries, 20 yards

Receiving

Tahj Washington: 4 recs, 65 yards

Jordan Addison: 5 recs, 54 yards, 2 TDs

Mario Williams: 3 recs, 43 yards

Raleek Brown: 2 recs, 40 yards

Kyron Hudson: 2 recs, 34 yards

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