Plaschke: The Trojans are back and might be the nation’s best

Caleb Williams hoisted a ball up through the thick air and into the arms of Jordan Addison, who spun out of the grip of a Stanford defender and sprinted into the end zone and…

yes it is real

Mekhi Blackmon jumped and stole a Stanford pass in the back of the endzone, then dove and pounced on a fumble in front of the endzone and…

yes it is on

USC showed up Saturday on the farm and before a national television audience in the first real Test of the Lincoln Riley era, a battle against stubborn old rivals Stanford, a game that would separate fact from fiction.

After a stunning 41-28 victory for the Trojans, the truth was obvious.

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

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

Fact: Nobody should be surprised if the Trojans qualify for the College Football Playoffs and Williams wins the Heisman and…

Yes, that happens.

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

Trojans wide receiver Jordan Addison makes a 22-yard touchdown grab against Stanford on Sept. 10, 2022.

Trojans wide receiver Jordan Addison makes a 22-yard touchdown grab in the first quarter. He finished with seven catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

While the Trojans’ opening game against the overwhelmed Rice was about creating local excitement, this game was about building national credibility. The Trojans did just that, appearing in front of ABC’s No. 1 Announcement Team, consisting of Rece Davis and Kirk Herbstreit.

They quickly took a 14-0 lead, extended it to 35-14 at halftime, led 41-14 after three quarters, and then held onto a win that didn’t feel nearly as close as the end result suggested . They gained 505 yards, had four takeaways despite conceding 441 yards, committed 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 12 months ago… a lot has changed,” Riley said afterwards near a locker room where his players had been singing the school fight 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 games later Caleb Williams hit Lake McRee with a beautiful play-action pass for a five-yard touchdown.

Then, after Blackmon’s interception in the end zone, it became more obvious when Caleb Williams ended a drive with a screen pass that Curling Addison converted into a 22-yard touchdown.

USC linebacker Eric Gentry (18) reacts after defenseman Mekhi Blackmon intercepts a pass September 10, 2022.

USC linebacker Eric Gentry, 18, celebrates after Trojan defenseman Mekhi Blackmon intercepted a pass.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

The most electrifying sign of change came in the closing moments of the first quarter when Caleb Williams threw the floater that Addison caught at the 15-yard line before spinning out of Kyu Blu Kelly’s grip and racing in for a 75 -Yard completion to complete landing.

There was stirring among the USC fans, who filled more than half of the seats. For Stanford fans, it was silenced. It was enlightening for anyone watching anywhere.

Fact: When the Trojans go on the offensive, you can’t look the other way.

Fact: When the Trojans are on defense, you can’t look the other way either, as they ended three drives in Stanford’s first half with dramatic takeaways, two of them from the goal line.

Fact: The Trojans may not be the best team in the country, but they are certainly the most exciting.

“We’re good and we have to show the world that we’re really good,” said running back Travis Dye. “I’ve been 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 notations in his wallet, he started the season under as much pressure as anyone in the country.

He handled it. He proved it. It’s better than advertised. It’s bigger than the hype.

For a second straight game, he was near-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. He adapts. He improvises. In one moment he hurls a pass down. In the next moment he refines a pass to the sideline. The next moment he’s running and itching and arming himself stiff, and it’s contagious.

Caleb Williams shared the appreciation for that long pass to Addison, who will lead the highlight videos.

“We did each one individually and it worked out perfectly,” he said.

While the piece was listening, Caleb Williams gave Riley credit.

“I looked over at him…so that was the big dog,” he said.

The game was essentially decided shortly thereafter with two more convincing games.

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

Caleb Williams invigorates, inspires and leads at full throttle in a way perhaps no USC quarterback has truly led since Matt Leinart.

It helps that he has Addison, the Pitt transfer who was voted the country’s top receiver last year and keeps getting better.

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

“You bring two ballers together, they just play naturally,” said running back Austin Jones of the Caleb Williams-Addison duo.

Believe it or not, USC also has an ongoing game. It certainly hadn’t escaped the notice of the old-school Trojans that they took a 35-14 lead at halftime when Dye rushed for 27 yards and a touchdown through a gaping hole down the middle.

Dye, an acclaimed transfer from Oregon, rushed for 105 yards in 14 carries while leading a fast attack that gained 164 yards.

But it’s not all insult. While the Trojans are rightly criticized for giving up large chunks of mileage for the usual rumbling Stanford offense, they’ve made the big games for a second straight week when it needed to.

A 73-yard drive at Stanford was stopped by Blackmon’s interception. Another 73-yard drive from Stanford was stopped by Blackmon’s fumble recovery after Max Williams popped the ball out of Stanford’s EJ Smith’s hands. The Trojans have eight takeaways across two games, and each of them seems packed with drama.

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

USC coach Lincoln Riley watches from the sidelines during the first half.

(Godofredo A. Vasquez / Associated Press)

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

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

The evening ended with the USC marching band dominating Stanford Stadium with the well-known song of triumph.

“We are… SC… We are… SC!”

And, man, are they back. Plaschke: The Trojans are back and might be the nation’s best

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