USC football feels like USC football again with Lincoln Riley

They flew again, right through the center, along the sidelines, from Figueroa to Vermont, whirling heat through the heat.

They struck again, pushing, hitting, pancakes, claiming dominance of a field they once dominated, a moment they once owned.

They reconnected, snatching bullets, clinging to tipped balls, pickaxe after pickaxe after pickaxe, wrapping their arms around a culture long thought lost.

On a searing Saturday afternoon at a Coliseum boisterous with a rebirth, with players hopping on the sidelines and fans pumping their fists through sweat, an old friend returned with a roar.

USC soccer feels like USC soccer again.

The result of the Trojans’ first game with new coach Lincoln Riley and his two dozen trades – a 66-14 win over Rice – was fully expected.

What was surprising was how overwhelmingly different it seemed.

Even at 34 degrees it was like a breath of fresh air, a reminder of what life used to be like here, a literal blast from the past.

The drudgery of Clay Helton, the darkness of Steve Sarkisian, the weirdness of Lane Kiffin, it all vanished in a three-hour throwback to Pete Carroll.

“We understand in this town we have to prove who we are as a team,” said a boyish, grinning Riley afterwards. “We’re going to do everything we can as a team to keep working so people can’t even stomach the thought of not coming to a USC football game.”

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA. - Sep 3, 2022. USC head 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 pick sixes — and entertainingly brash.

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 barely three minutes later on a five-yard pass from new quarterback Caleb Williams to new receiver Jordan Addison and didn’t let up, much to the delight of a larger-than-expected crowd, some of whom lingered in the early evening shade to serenade the Trojans , as they slowly exited a crowded and celebratory post-game midfield scene.

Just like old times.

“It’s a fun moment,” Riley said. “It matters to all of us.”

The 66 points is the most they’ve scored in a game since – you guessed it – Carroll roamed the sidelines in 2008.

Rice cornerback Sean Fresch, left, is called out for interfering with a pass for USC wide receiver Brenden Rice.

Rice cornerback Sean Fresch, left, is called out in the first half for interfering with a pass for USC wide receiver Brenden Rice.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

“Last night at the team meeting you could tell they just said bring the game here,” Riley said.

No one seemed more excited about the opportunity than Williams, the Oklahoma transfer who lived up to all the hype. He threaded the needle on passes on the sidelines, adeptly finding receivers over center and pivoting down on foot.

He missed just three of 22 passes for 249 yards and two touchdowns while finding eight different receivers from all sorts of angles. He also rushed for 68 yards on several daring and spinning scrambles.

“I thought he played very controlled, very relaxed, which I think is often the case with quarterbacks that play at a high level,” said Riley, who knows something about high-quality quarterbacks.

Is it too early to drop this guy in the middle of the Heisman race? Maybe not.

“We have a lot of confidence, it kind of comes together … a heartbeat,” Williams said. “It takes a lot of reps, a lot of max effort, second effort to make it look like that.”

USC running back Austin Jones breaks out for a touchdown on Rice in the second half.

USC running back Austin Jones breaks out for a touchdown on Rice in the second half.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The new running backs banged through that heartbeat as well, Stanford transfer Austin Jones scoring twice, including breaking two tackles on a 28-yard streak, while freshman Raleek Brown leaped outside for a 14-yard touchdown, den he ended the pose with a little Heisman guy.

All that great offense, but the Trojans’ new look and attitude was best demonstrated by two plays in defence.

In the second quarter, Cameron Montgomery broke away from Rice at center and raced for a touchdown when he was caught from behind by safety Calen Bullock after 55 yards in a brilliant effort.

Four games later, Bullock snatched a tipped pass from Rice quarterback Wiley Green and rushed 93 yards for a touchdown.

It was the first of those three interception returns for touchdowns, Shane Lee picked up a tipped ball and ran it back 40 yards, and Nick Figueroa choked quarterback TJ McMahon into a poor pass that Ralen Goforth returned 31 yards to score .

“It’s a fun moment,” Riley said. “I thought we maintained our energy and physicality throughout the game.”

Southern California quarterback Caleb Williams (13) celebrates after a 66-14 win.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams and his teammates celebrate the Trojans’ 66-14 win over Rice at the Coliseum on Saturday.

(Ashley Landis/Associated Press)

It was also encouraging that the Trojans didn’t lose their composure on such a hot day that the USC marching band wore shorts.

Think about it. When was the last time USC starters didn’t commit a lot of penalties? In three quarters before the backups took over, they only committed three. Add this to their zero sales and it’s a different scene indeed.

Justin Dedich, Trojan Guard, noticed this new reality in empty seats late in the game.

“Usually the fans would leave the game because we were so blown away,” he said. “[This time] They left because we won so well.”

Of course it’s just a game. Stanford expects next week at The Farm. A whole autumn of potholes spreads out before them. It’s only by avoiding these traps that USC can truly prove things have changed.

“We understand this is just the beginning,” Riley said. “There’s so much left”

But, my goodness, what a start.

Before the game, the Trojans weren’t brought out of the tunnel by a former USC football star, but were led onto the field by former USC basketball stars Isaiah and Evan Mobley of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The football team didn’t rumble, they sped, following the hopping and sprinting basketball players in a mad scrum on the sidelines.

Call it a rapid departure into a new era.

USC soccer feels like USC soccer again. USC football feels like USC football again with Lincoln Riley

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