LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The grand opening of the Lincoln Riley era at USC began with a new logo on his familiar visor and plenty of fireworks on the field of new and old faces. USC scored the most points in a game since 2008 thanks to a clinical offensive debut from quarterback Caleb Williams and three interceptions returned for touchdowns by the USC defense as they beat Rice 66-14 in the Trojans’ season opener.
“We understand that this is just the beginning and there is so much, much better left to play, so much better to coach,” Riley said. “It’s a great start; it’s nothing more than that, nothing less than that.”
Even if Riley didn’t want to inflate the result, it couldn’t have gone much better than it did. USC finished with 538 total yards, 27 first downs, and a single punt that came with 12:21 left in the fourth quarter just after Williams and a host of starters on offense exited.
“I think we have a lot of confidence,” said Williams, who transferred from Oklahoma after Riley was hired. “And we didn’t just build that confidence by coming out here being excited for the first game.”
Of any new player, Williams had the most anticipation going into the opener, but watching him play, it was hard to see any semblance of pressure or expectations affecting him. Williams was comfortable in a pocket that allowed him to take his time and complete 19 of his 22 pass attempts (best for a USC quarterback since Matt Barkley in 2012) including passes to 12 different receivers as well as two touchdowns to the other highly touted ones. transfer the Trojans caught this offseason: Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison.
“Since he got here, it’s almost been like we’ve been throwing at each other for the past year,” Williams said. “It was easy.”
Everything seemed easy for Williams in the opener, including using his shuffling ability to dance through the Rice defense to the tune of 68 rushing yards on six carries. It seemed like Williams barely broke a sweat through three quarters, and when he felt it was time for Riley to pull him out of the game, Williams tried his best to keep playing.
“Oh, I didn’t want to go out, so I tried to play as smart as I could by going down before anybody could hit me,” Williams said. “(Riley) said, ‘I know you’re trying to stay in the game.'”
“It’s not Year One anymore,” Riley joked in the press room.
For all of the attention on USC’s high-powered offense, the surprise of the game was USC’s defense. The unit came into the season with the most questions surrounding its depth and talent, and although they started the game allowing two long drives for touchdowns, they woke up in a big way with four interceptions — the defense had four last season. — including three returned for touchdowns by sophomore Calen Bullock, Alabama transfer linebacker Shane Lee and senior linebacker Ralen Goforth.
“It came true today,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “You can only do so much in practice, and it’s critical. Nobody’s going to talk about practice more than me. But ultimately, you have to go out there on stage.”
Addison and Williams were the headliners, but many other transfers and even some incoming freshmen made an immediate impact. Stanford’s Austin Jones had two rushing touchdowns while true freshman Raleek Brown had eight rushing touchdowns which bodes well for the Trojans’ depth at the position.
For at least one game against an inferior opponent, USC didn’t look like a team that was completely overhauled in the offseason with more than 40 new players. Instead, they proceeded to put it all together and score more points than they had in any game under former head coach Clay Helton.
“This is definitely a statement, that’s what we wanted to do,” Addison said. “We had to show everybody that this wasn’t just any hype. We’re ready to play.”
The significance of the long-awaited trip to the first game under the new regime was not lost on Riley or any of the players. As temperatures reached nearly 100 degrees, USC announced just over 60,000 fans at the Coliseum where capacity is 78,647.
“We understand that in this town, and I think it’s fair, we have to go prove who we are as a team,” Riley said. “We’re going to do everything we can as a team to keep working so people can’t even bear the thought of not coming to USC football.”
Added Oklahoma transfer wide receiver Mario Williams: “This is a new era, this SC.”