The Trojans are back and may be the best team in the country

USC quarterback Caleb Williams, who threw for 341 yards and four touchdowns, leaves the field after the No. 10 Trojans’ 41-28 win at Stanford. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/Associated Press)

Caleb Williams sent a ball high into the thick air and into the arms of Jordan Addison, who spun out of the hands of a Stanford defender and sprinted into the end zone and …

Yes, it’s real.

Mekhi Blackmon jumped and stole a Stanford pass in the back of the end zone, then dove and rushed for a touchdown in front of the end zone and …

Yes, it is enabled.

USC appeared on The Farm and in front of a national television audience Saturday in the first real test of the Lincoln Riley era, a battle against arch-rival Stanford, a game that would separate fact from fiction.

After a thrilling 41-28 win by the Trojans, the truths were evident.

Fact: USC might be the best team in the country.

Fact: Quarterback Williams might be the best player in the country.

Fact: No one should be surprised if the Trojans make the College Football Playoff and Williams wins the Heisman and …

Yes, this is happening.

“I like what I see,” Reggie Bush tweeted during the game at Stanford Stadium, and he wasn’t alone.

Trojans wide receiver Jordan Addison runs for a 22-yard touchdown against Stanford on September 10, 2022.

Trojans wide receiver Jordan Addison runs for a 22-yard touchdown, first quarter. He finished with seven catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/Associated Press)

While the Trojans’ first game against overmatched Rice was about generating local excitement, this game was about forging national credibility. Performing in front of ABC’s No. 1 announce team of Rece Davis and Kirk Herbstreit, the Trojans did just that.

They jumped out to a quick 14-0 lead, led 35-14 at halftime, led 41-14 after three quarters and then held on for a victory that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. They gained 505 yards, had four carries despite allowing 441 yards, no turnovers and won here for the first time in eight years.

Not to mention, they avenged last year’s 42-28 loss to Stanford that cost Clay Helton his job.

“Look at 12 months ago … a lot has changed,” Riley said afterward near a locker room where his players sang the school’s game song.

That change was evident less than three minutes into the game when Max Williams intercepted a pass from Stanford’s Tanner McKee and, four plays later, Caleb Williams hit Lake McRee on a great play-action pass for a five-point touchdown. of yards.

Then, after Blackmon’s end zone interception, it became more apparent when Caleb Williams completed a drive with a screen pass that the curling Addison turned into a 22-yard touchdown.

USC linebacker Eric Gentry (18) reacts after defensive back Mekhi Blackmon intercepts a pass on Sept. 10, 2022.

USC linebacker Eric Gentry (18) rejoices after Trojans defensive back Mekhi Blackmon intercepts a pass. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/Associated Press)

The most electrifying sign of change came in the closing moments of the first quarter, when Caleb Williams threw that floater that Addison caught at the 15-yard line before eluding Kyu Blu Kelly and running in to complete a 75-yard drive. touchdown.

For USC fans who filled more than half the seats, it was shocking. For Stanford fans, it was depressing. For everyone watching anywhere, it was revelatory.

Fact: When the Trojans are on offense, you can’t look away.

Fact: When the Trojans are on defense, you can’t look away either, as they ended three Stanford drives in the first half with dramatic plays, two at the goal line.

Fact: If the Trojans aren’t the best team in the country, they’re certainly the most exciting.

“We’re good and we have to show the world that we’re really good,” Travis Dye said. “I’ve played on some really good teams and this is the best team I’ve ever been on.”

It starts with Caleb Williams. Arriving in Los Angeles as a transfer from Oklahoma with stars in his eyes and endorsements in his wallet, he entered the season under as much pressure as anyone in the country.

He has handled it. He has proven it. He is better than advertised. He is bigger than the hype.

For the second straight game he was nearly perfect, completing 20 of 27 passes for 341 yards and four touchdowns and no interceptions.

For the season, he’s 39 of 49 for 590 yards and six touchdowns and no interceptions, and he’s even better than that.

He runs. Adaptable. He improvises. One moment he throws a pass at the bottom. The next moment, a touchline pass ends. The next moment he’s running, jiggling and gunning hard, and it’s contagious.

On that big pass to Addison that will lead the video highlights, Caleb Williams shared the credit.

“We all ran it all as one at the same time and it worked perfectly,” he said.

While the play was audible, Caleb Williams gave credit to Riley.

“I looked at him … that’s how it was for the big dog,” he said.

The game was effectively over soon after with two more exciting plays.

Caleb Williams threw a deep ball that Mario Williams caught for a 43-yard completion followed immediately by a screen pass that Mario Williams ran for a touchdown after breaking three tackles.

Caleb Williams is invigorating, inspiring and leading the way like perhaps no USC quarterback has since Matt Leinart.

It helps that they have Addison, the Pitt transfer who was voted the best receiver in the country last year and is only getting better.

Addison has speed, hands and worked behind Stanford defenders Saturday for seven catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.

“You put two ballplayers together, they just make plays naturally,” said Austin Jones of the Caleb Williams-Addison duo.

USC, believe it or not, also has a running game. It certainly wasn’t lost on the old-school Trojans who took a 35-14 halftime lead when Dye ran through an open hole up the middle for 27 yards and a touchdown.

Dye, a big-time transfer from Oregon, rushed for 105 yards on 14 carries while leading a rushing attack that gained 164 yards.

But it’s not all insult. While the Trojans will get some deserved criticism for giving up big chunks of yardage to Stanford’s routine offense – for the second straight week they made the big plays when they needed to.

A 73-yard Stanford drive was stopped by Blackmon’s interception. Another Stanford 73-yard drive was stopped by Blackmon’s fumble recovery after Max Williams knocked the ball out of the hands of Stanford’s EJ Smith. The Trojans have eight takeaways in two games, and each one seemingly full of drama.

USC coach Lincoln Riley watches the team from the sidelines during the first half, Sept. 10, 2022.

USC coach Lincoln Riley looks on from the sideline during the first half. (Godofredo A. Vásquez/Associated Press)

“We have to clean up the mental execution,” Riley said.

USC was sloppy with nine penalties for 104 yards – brings back some bad memories, right? — but indeed, this was another night when everything felt different.

The night ended with the USC marching band commanding Stanford Stadium with the familiar triumphant chant.

“We are… SC… We are… SC!”

And, man, they’re back.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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