The USC Trojans kicked off their 2022 season and Lincoln Riley’s tenure with a solid win on Saturday over the Rice Owls. If we’re being honest, though, this game probably didn’t go quite like USC thought it was going to, even with a final score of 66-14. The game was surprisingly a back-and-forth affair in the early going with Rice marching up and down the field on USC. But just as the Owls were inside the red zone with a chance to make it a seven-point game, Calen Bullock stepped in front of a Wiley Green pass and took it back 93 yards for a touchdown. Rice did score on its next possession to make it 28-14 but that was it for the Owls and the rout was officially on.
It was a rather easy day for the Trojans' new coaching staff. Riley probably saw much of what he wanted to see on the day from both his new assistants and the familiar faces he brought over from Oklahoma. He certainly same some great things from his star-studded transfer class. Former Alabama linebacker Shane Lee also returned a pick for a score, one of three such plays on the day. Running back Austin Jones (Stanford transfer) had two rushing touchdowns, one covering 28 yards; and Pitt transfer and reigning Biletnikoff Award recipient Jordan Addison also got in the scoring with a pair of TD catches. Overall, it was a good day for a new start, so let’s look at a few takeaways.
USC Football: 3 Takeaways from Trojans' Season-Opening Victory Over Rice
1. USC slogged its way to a win when it knew it probably wouldn’t look pretty
The Trojans had to know with all the transfers, new coaches, new playbooks, and new atmosphere, there was going to be so much coming at their athletes that even the best and brightest on the roster may struggle some out of the gate. There are always exceptions and guys that just jump right in and get everything right away, but Riley's arrival resulted in a complete change to everything USC does, on and off the field, and that's not easy to manage in one offseason.
Mistakes were going to be made in the first game. Players, plays, and positions were going to look sloppy, undecided, or a combination. Besides, if the expectation was it would be the same old, same old, then there wouldn't have been all this excitement surrounding Riley's debut, correct? This was going to be a learning experience for everyone, which made Rice a tailor-made, season-opening opponent to debut the new-look Trojans. The Owls are the type of team that is just good enough to punish you for a few mistakes and maybe keep it interesting for a minute, but not good enough to test USC genuinely over four quarters. If you watched Saturday's game, these paragraphs aptly describe much of what you probably said to your friends during it. Rice served its purpose.
2. The opportunity for an upset arrives next week should USC choose not to learn from Rice
Just as Rice presented an opponent that would allow for a mistake-riddled win, Stanford is there to remind the 2022 Trojans and Riley that was a one-time thing and ended with the Cardinal. Stanford is the perfect first Pac-12 opponent for Riley because nobody would love to beat Riley more than David Shaw. The Cardinal are a constant reminder that there are no easy wins in the Pac-12 and every game could mean an upset. They might not be what they were a decade ago, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t a disciplined, well-coached football team.
So the things USC will need to sort out after this week begin now and that work must begin in earnest. It’s pretty clear that the offensive line, particularly the tackles, will be a work in progress. It may even take a couple of games for USC to find its best combination up front. It helps that the Trojans have not just one, but two savvy, veteran running backs who can step in and provide added pass protection while the line gels. Both Jones and Travis Dye can help and might have to until that is sorted out. The tackle-by-committee approach worked against Rice, but I wouldn’t rely on it over a season if I were Riley.
3. The talent on the roster showed up on the field
When USC goes out and recruits guys, the coaching staff does so with the intention of finding the best at as many positions as they can knowing some top talents will just go elsewhere. But the ability to keep local top talent home is only going to grow with games like today. Riley was almost clinical in how he spread the ball around on offense with quarterback Caleb Williams as his conduit. The head coach knew people were tuning in to see these new electric recruits and transfers they’d heard about, so he drew up plays for as many of them as possible and also found ways to get guys their first touchdowns. In recruiting, this sort of stuff matters so much more than you might think. “No waiting around at SC, you will play if you have the talent” was the message from Riley today.
A perfect example of this is running back Raleek Brown. One of the nation's top recruits, Brown totaled 76 yards on eight touches in his Trojans debut. One of those touches resulted in a 14-yard touchdown run that had him strike a very familiar college football pose in the end zone. Brown is just a true freshman, but he'll have the opportunity to be the next incredible and unforgettable running back at USC. And Riley wasn’t afraid to get him out there early while also getting every other big name making their own Trojans debut, some special sauce for themselves.
Riley is such a generous dude.
— Written by Kane Webb, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @FightOnTwist.