Maybe it was the scorching heat, or Labor Day weekend, or perhaps it was the opponent, but regardless of the reason, the LA Memorial Coliseum was half-empty for the team’s home opener on Saturday.
The game ushered in the dawn of a new era of USC Football.
Gone are the days of the Trojans bloodline dominating the sidelines. One of the most decorated programs in college football is now being led by Lincoln Riley, an outsider with no ties to the school or its former coaches.
When Riley was announced as the new coach of the Trojans program back in November, many within the program were shocked. Riley was successful as the head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners and most assumed the Texas native would never leave the South.
But Riley was intrigued by the opportunity to return the Trojans to glory, and admitted he was looking for a fresh start for he and his family.
Riley got to work right away. He’s brought in over two-dozen players from the transfer portal, and over 40 new players in total. According to the few remaining players from the Clay Helton era before him, Riley has completely changed the culture of the program in just a few months.
“I feel like the biggest difference is Coach,” senior offensive lineman Andrew Voorhees told ESPN before the opening game. “The paradigm shift that he’s brought to our culture in our program, that has really stood out to me.”
Riley himself, spends most of his time on offense. He notably brought over his starting quarterback Caleb Williams, receiver Mario Williams, and cornerback Latrell McCutchin from Oklahoma to Los Angeles.
Then he brought over 2021 Fred Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison from Pitt to complete the revamp of the Trojans offense. It didn’t take very long for that offense to show what it can do on Saturday.
The Trojans won the opening coin toss and unlike the USC teams of old that would defer, this team defied conventional wisdom and elected to receive. In other words, “We want the ball now and we’re going to score.”
It only took Williams and Addison a few minutes to do just that. The Trojans marched 75 yards down the field in just seven plays on their opening drive and scored their first touchdown of the Riley era when Williams found Addison in the end zone for a five-yard score.
The USC offense was expected to provide plenty of fireworks, especially against an inferior opponent in Rice. Most of the questions from pundits came on the defensive side of the ball.
Last season, the Trojans defense allowed a whopping 37 points per game. Defense and the line of scrimmage were the two biggest reasons for that and the team’s 1-7 record in their last eight games of the season.
Riley brought his defensive coordinator from Oklahoma, Alex Grinch, with him from Norman. Grinch knows he has a lot of work ahead of him and that the margin of error on defense is thin.
That was indicative on the ensuing Rice drive after USC’s opening score.
Opposing teams know that the way to stop a high-octane offense is to keep them off the field. That means holding on to the football with long, slow, scoring drives, and dominating the time of possession.
The Owls did that immediately when they matched the Trojans, marching down the field for their own 75-yard touchdown drive, but they did it in over twice the amount of time (8:09) and in more than twice the amount of plays with sixteen.
After that, it was all Trojans. Entering the game USC was 33.5-point favorites, so that was likely inevitable, but an early injury to Rice’s starting quarterback Wiley Green played a role, as did the drops and tipped passes from the Owls’ receivers that led to three pick-sixes by the Trojans defense, tying a school and Pac-12 record.
The offense steamrolled Rice, connecting on routes of all kinds, running the ball well both with their backs and with Williams dual-threat capabilities on full display. But what stood out more than anything else on offense was the discipline, focus, and fun seen by the new-look Trojans.
USC’s starters committed just three penalties before the backups entered the game in a blowout and committed just three more. The team had zero turnovers. Players were smiling, and interacting with students in the stands, and the 66 total points scored by the Trojans were the most since Pete Carroll was head coach in 2008.
“We have a lot of confidence,” said Williams after the win, whose now has the third best odds to win the Heisman Trophy after Week 1. “It’s kind of coming together…one heartbeat. It takes a lot of reps, lot of maximum effort, second effort, to make it look like that.”
It’s too early to announce the return of USC Football. Especially when comparing it to the golden age of Caroll, Matt Leinart, Reggie Bush, and others; an era that ended in multiple NCAA titles and championship game appearances.
The questions on defense will continue to linger as the season goes on and injuries pile up. What will happen when the Trojans are truly tested by an equal or better team? How will they respond when their backs are against the wall, or they are trailing by a score late in the fourth quarter with under two minutes remaining and they need a game-winning drive to secure the victory?
The answers to those questions will surely come, but one thing is for certain: on a scorching Saturday afternoon in Los Angeles, USC took the first step on that journey back to prominence. The dark days of Lane Kiffin, Steve Sarkisian, and Clay Helton are now in the rearview, and the new resurgence of Riley is here.
Fans may have not packed the stadium for the first game, but Riley believes if all goes to plan, the Coliseum will be sold out and rocking on Saturday nights once again.
“We understand in this city, we’ve got to go prove who we are as a team,” said Riley, smiling after the victory. “We are 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.”