LOS ANGELES (AP) — Zachariah Branch caught a short pass from Caleb Williams and accelerated, turning defenders into turnstiles as he zigzagged downfield. The freshman then broke out Cristiano Ronaldo's iconic goal celebration for his first touchdown, leaping and twisting and screaming to the sky.
The Heisman Trophy winner has a dangerous new teammate joining him for Southern California's pursuit of championships.
Williams passed for 278 yards and four touchdowns, and Branch made an electrifying debut with a 96-yard kickoff return and a 25-yard reception for touchdowns in No. 6 USC's 56-28 victory over San Jose State on Saturday night.
Branch was an immediate phenomenon in his first game out of Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High School, making four catches for 58 yards — none better than that catch-and-run for a score on a drive set up by his 35-yard punt return. Branch said he learned Ronaldo's celebration while playing the FIFA video game.
“I've been planning that for like two months,” Branch said with a grin. "It was always a dream for me to be at a prestigious university and be around an elite staff and elite players. I was just real excited. ... And once I touched the end zone, the crowd turned me up a little bit.”
Branch then broke it open with his kickoff return down the Spartans’ sideline in the third quarter, dodging tackles all the way home. The Coliseum crowd, which has cheered game-breaking talents from Reggie Bush and Marqise Lee to Amon-Ra St. Brown and Drake London over the past two decades alone, rose and roared for a freshman who looks like the next big thing.
“Thought he did a good job not trying to do too much, which guys in their first game sometimes will do,” coach Lincoln Riley said. “The patience, especially on the return, was key. We talked about trust, and then going into this first game, he was a great example of that. He heavily impacted the game.”
Williams looked typically smooth and elusive as he began what’s likely to be his final collegiate season by leading six TD drives in eight series. Dorian Singer, Tahj Washington and Brenden Rice also caught TD passes and Austin Jones rushed for two more scores as USC opened its second season under Riley with another impressive offensive performance that easily covered the Trojans’ persistent defensive flaws.
“I feel good, (but) walking off that field, there's a bit of frustration,” Williams said. “In the first half, it just felt like we weren't hitting on certain calibers that we're going to hit on soon.”
San Jose State's Nick Nash caught three touchdown passes from Chevan Cordeiro, who passed for 198 yards and rushed for 52 more.
“Honestly, there’s disappointment in our hearts right now because we had an opportunity for that thing to be a fight, like a close one," Spartans coach Brent Brennan said. “And I credit them. They made the plays. The kickoff coverage, we hit a flat kick in the middle of the field to the freshman, and he’s something else. Good lord, he was fantastic. We all saw him in high school, and you don’t get five stars by accident.”
Williams then showed off his famed poise and playmaking originality in the second quarter when he dropped a shotgun snap, corralled it and promptly flung a stunning 76-yard touchdown pass to Washington — the longest pass of Williams' career.
Cordeiro hit Nash with a 28-yard TD pass just 8 seconds before halftime to trim USC’s lead to 21-14, setting off a few grumbles in the Coliseum. But Williams confidently led a drive ending in Jones' second TD to open the second half.
“It’s a surreal feeling to be back here,” Nash said. "We played them in 2021. I didn’t get in that much. And now, being back, having three touchdowns is really an awesome feeling.”
The Trojans played their earliest season opener since 1996 because USC and BYU decided last year to scrap a meeting scheduled for November 2023, leaving the Trojans looking for a late replacement. USC remained unbeaten in Coliseum openers since 1997.
Riley and his coaching staff appeared to be treating their opener as an audition for bigger games. The Trojans rotated players extensively on both sides of the ball, notably using a different group on the offensive line on nearly every possession.
“A lot of it is for positive reasons,” Riley said. “We've got some things to sort out. We think we've got multiple guys capable of being starters.”
Freshman quarterback Malachi Nelson, Williams’ expected successor in 2024, made his USC debut on the final series.
San Jose State: Nash, a multitalented veteran who moved to receiver full-time last season after he lost a quarterback competition to Cordeiro, looks poised for a breakout year. The Orange County native caught only 11 passes in his first four years.
USC: Coordinator Alex Grinch's defense still has plenty of work to do, particularly against mobile quarterbacks such as Cordeiro. While the defensive front looked much better, the other two levels were unimpressive. They've got time to address it, but Notre Dame is only five games away.
The Trojans seem likely to stay in the same spot, since this game didn't reveal anything voters didn't already know when they picked the preseason AP Top 25.
San Jose State: Hosts Oregon State on Sunday, Sept. 3.
USC: Hosts Nevada on Saturday, Sept. 2.
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll