Like a breath of fresh air on a hot day, USC football is looking like USC football again

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USC coach Lincoln Riley celebrates with his players after a touchdown against Rice on Saturday. USC’s 66-14 win showed how much has changed with the team over the past 10 months. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

They flew again, in the middle, on the sidelines, from Figueroa to Vermont, whirling through heat with heat.

They struck back, pushing, pounding, frying, claiming dominance of a field they once ruled, a moment they once owned.

They reconnected, grabbing balls from spheres, holding balls by the edges, pick after pick, wrapping their arms around a culture long thought lost.

On a hot Saturday afternoon in a Coliseum reeling from a renaissance, with players bouncing on the sidelines and fans fist-pumping in sweat, an old friend came roaring back.

USC football looks like USC football again.

The outcome of the Trojans’ first game under new coach Lincoln Riley and his two dozen signings — a 66-14 victory over Rice — was entirely predictable.

What was surprising was how very different it looked.

Even in 94-degree temperatures, it was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder of what life was like around here, a literal blast from the past.

Clay Helton’s drudgery, Steve Sarkisian’s darkness, Lane Kiffin’s insanity, all vanished in a three-hour Pete Carroll flashback.

“We understand in this town, we have to go prove who we are as a team,” a boyish, smiling Riley said later. “We’re going to do everything we can as a team to continue to work so that people can’t even bear the thought of not coming to a USC football game.”

LOS ANGELES, CA.  - SEP.  3, 2022. USC coach Lincoln Riley celebrates with his daughter.

USC coach Lincoln Riley celebrates with his daughter after winning his Trojans debut against Rice. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

These Trojans are very disciplined, very focused, very opportunistic — seriously, they’ve had three elections — and entertainingly daring.

Did you see what happened after they won the coin toss? Defying conventional football wisdom, they chose to receive.

Give us the ball. Now.

They scored just three minutes later on a five-yard pass from freshman quarterback Caleb Williams to freshman receiver Jordan Addison and never let up, much to the delight of a larger-than-expected crowd, some of whom stayed in the early afternoon shadows to serenade to the Trojans as they slowly left a packed and celebratory midfield scene after the match.

Just like before.

“It’s a fun time,” Riley said. “It’s important to all of us.”

The 66 points are the most they’ve scored in a game since — you guessed it — Carroll wandered to the sideline in 2008.

Rice's Sean Fresch, left, is called for pass interference on a pass intended for USC wide receiver Brenden Rice.

Rice cornerback Sean Fresch, left, is called for pass interference intended for USC wide receiver Brenden Rice during the first half. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

“Last night in the team meeting you could tell, it was like taking the game here,” Riley said.

No one seemed more excited about the opportunity than Williams, the Oklahoma transfer who lived up to every bit of the hype. He threaded the needle on lateral passes, deftly finding receivers over the middle and twisting underneath with his feet.

He completed just three of 22 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns while finding eight different receivers at all kinds of different angles. He also ran for 68 yards on several daring and twisting scrambles.

“I thought he played very controlled, very comfortable, which I think quarterbacks who play at a high level, a lot of times it looks like that,” said Riley, who knows a thing or two about high-level quarterbacks.

Is it too soon to throw this guy in the middle of the Heisman race? Probably not.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence, it’s kind of coming together … in a heartbeat,” Williams said. “It takes a lot of reps, a lot of max effort, second effort, to make it look like this.”

USC running back Austin Jones breaks free for a touchdown against Rice in the second half.

USC running back Austin Jones breaks free for a touchdown against Rice in the second half. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

The freshman running backs also got their fill, Stanford transfer Austin Jones scored twice, including breaking two tackles on a 28-yard run, while freshman Ralick Brown bounced out for a 14-yard touchdown that ended with just Heisman-type. stand.

All that great offense, yet the Trojans’ new look and attitude showed better than two plays on defense.

In the second quarter, Rice’s Cameron Montgomery broke free up the middle and was racing for a touchdown when he was caught from behind 55 yards on an inspired effort by safety Calen Bullock.

Four plays later, Bullock caught a tipped pass from Rice quarterback Wy Green and ran 93 yards for a touchdown.

It was the first of those three interception returns for touchdowns, Shane Lee picked off an inbounds ball and ran it back 40 yards and Nick Figueroa smothered quarterback TJ McMahon on a bad pass that Ralen Goforth returned 31 yards for a score.

“It’s a fun time,” Riley said. “I thought we kept our energy and our fitness throughout the game.”

Southern California's Caleb Williams (13) celebrates after the 66-14 win.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams celebrates with teammates after the Trojans’ 66-14 victory over Rice at the Coliseum on Saturday. (Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

It was also encouraging that, on such a hot day, USC’s band was wearing shorts, the Trojans didn’t lose their cool.

Think about it. When was the last time USC’s starters didn’t commit a bunch of penalties? In three quarters, before the backups took over, they committed just three. Add that to their zero turnovers and it’s a different picture indeed.

Trojan guard Justin Dedich noticed this new reality in open positions late in the game.

“Usually the fans would walk out of the game because we got so fired up,” he said. “[This time] they left because we won so well.”

It’s just a game, of course. Stanford awaits next week at The Farm. A whole autumn of puddles stretches out before them. Only by avoiding these pitfalls can USC truly prove that things have changed.

“We understand this is just the beginning,” Riley said. “There are so many left”

But, my goodness, what a start.

Before the game, instead of being led out of the tunnel by a former USC football star, the Trojans were led onto the court by former USC basketball stars Isaiah and Evan Mobley of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The football team didn’t beat, they ran, following the jumping and sprinting basketball players in a crazy sideways collision.

Call it a fast break into a new era.

USC football looks like USC football again.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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