USC’s Zacharias Branch has 2 TDs in the Trojans’ first appearance

Paolo AugettiAspenAugust 27, 2023 at 02:07 AM ET5 minutes to read

Caleb Williams shines with a 4-TD performance in USC’s opener

Caleb Williams lights up San Jose State with a 278-yard game and four touchdowns in USC’s victory.

LOS ANGELES – For almost half of football, the 2023 edition of… USC looked a lot like the 2022 edition.

In their season opener against San Jose State on Saturday night, the #6-ranked Trojans scored plenty of points but also struggled at times to prevent their opponents from doing the same.

Quarterback Caleb Williams started his repeat drive for Heisman by picking up where he left off, throwing for 278 yards and four touchdowns in the 56-28 win. But the fresh-faced defense was again shaky, showing flashes of talent added to the squad but struggling to contain a mobile midfielder.

“Regardless of the outcome, if this is a three-point game, if it’s a 28-point game, if it’s a 50-point game, there’s going to be an ascent to the next step,” said head coach Lincoln Riley. He said after the game. “And this is where our focus will remain. There is a lot of work to do, and we are the right people to get it done.”

Last season, Williams often had inconsistent defensive performances that were moot of his own. He got some help Saturday, however, when another star emerged in the form of true receiver Zachariah Branch. The #7 recruit in the 2023 ESPN 300, Branch took over the third quarter and raked his way to 232 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns on just nine touches, including an impressive 96-yard kickoff return for a score that helped solidify the score.

Branch, who arrived on campus in the spring, drew rave reviews from his teammates throughout fall camp, but it wasn’t clear how much playing time or impact it would make. After just one game, Branch can claim one of the most exciting starts in USC football history and a role that should continue to grow.

“He’s had an impact on offense, he’s had an impact on special teams. He deserved it,” said Riley, who does not allow freshmen to speak to the media. Branch sat next to him at the press conference. “He did a good job of not trying to do too much, which players do in their first game sometimes.”

USC’s Zachariah Branch had 232 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns on just nine touchdowns on Saturday, including an impressive 96-yard kickoff return for a score.AP/JC Hong photo

The 19-year-old from Bishop Gorman High School started his career by catching a pass from Williams in the third quarter and made his way into the end zone for a 25-yard touchdown.

Later in the quarter, Branch unleashed its great offering. After the kickoff near USC’s endzone, Branch began running and scanning the field in front of him as if charting his path. Then, he took off, not only dodged defenders with his moves, but also flew over them as if he was playing at a completely different speed. His final move—a slam dunk close to the 20-yard line giving him an open pass into the end zone—has the entire field gasping.

He also forced Branch to answer post-game questions about his speed.

“40 times faster? I ran a 4.38 at UA camp,” Branch said, quickly recalling the numbers. “In the 100’s, I ran a 10.3 my sophomore year of high school.”

Branch’s kickoff return for a touchdown was the first by a true USC freshman since Adoree’ Jackson in the 2014 Holiday Bowl—an occasion, given the players have so many similarities. Both are listed as wide receivers but are lesser boundary positions, and use incredible speed and agility to beat defenses, whether that’s by catching the ball, running it, or swooping in on kickoffs and punts.

On Saturday, when Branch touched the ball again on a return after several series, all eyes were on him in anticipation of what he might do next. Within a few plays, Branch had become one of the hottest players on the field.

“You don’t have to put that into words just because you say it every day, you know?” Fellow receiver Washington Pilgrim said Branch’s talent.

Branch is one of the many players who make up the Trojans’ deep receiving room. In all, 12 players caught passes from Williams or reserve Miller Moss on Saturday. But despite the talent in that position – and an increase in talent in almost every position before this year – Williams said there was some frustration in the opener with the lack of consistency across the squad.

“In the first half, I just felt like we weren’t hitting certain efficiencies and things like that, and we were going to be hitting it here soon,” Williams said. “We have a long way to go and there is a lot to improve on.”

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