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    Wide receiver Zachariah Branch #1 of the USC Trojans catch a pass for first down against the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Linebacker Mason Cobb #13 of the USC Trojans reacts after tackling running back Jabari Bates #23 of the San Jose State Spartans for a loss of yards in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans shows off his nails with his dog’s name Supa, a english bulldog on National Dog Day after defeating the San Jose State Spartans 56-28 during a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Quarterback Miller Moss #7 of the USC Trojans is mobbed by teammates wide receiver Ja’Kobi Lane #89 of the USC Trojans and tight end Lake McRee #87 of the USC Trojans after running for a touchdown against the San Jose State Spartans in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Running back Austin Jones #6 of the USC Trojans reacts with teammate tight end Jude Wolfe #18 of the USC Trojans after running for touchdown against the San Jose State Spartans in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Wide receiver Zachariah Branch #1 of the USC Trojans reacts after a touchdown against the San Jose State Spartans in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Cornerback Jay’Vion Cole #8 of the San Jose State Spartans breaks up a pass intended for wide receiver Kyron Hudson #10 of the USC Trojans in the second half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans hands off to running back Austin Jones #6 of the USC Trojans as he runs for touchdown against the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Defensive end Jamil Muhammad #10 of the USC Trojans pressures quarterback Chevan Cordeiro #2 of the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Defensive end Jamil Muhammad #10 of the USC Trojans pressures quarterback Chevan Cordeiro #2 of the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Defensive end Jamil Muhammad #10 of the USC Trojans reacts after pressuring quarterback Chevan Cordeiro #2 of the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 celebrates with teammates running back Austin Jones #6 and wide receiver Kyron Hudson #10 of the USC Trojans after catching a pass and runs for a 76 yard touchdown against the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 celebrates with teammates running back...

    Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 celebrates with teammates running back Austin Jones #6 and wide receiver Kyron Hudson #10 of the USC Trojans after catching a pass and runs for a 76 yard touchdown against the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Wide receiver Tahj Washington #16 of the USC Trojans catches a pass and runs for a76 yard touchdown against the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans scrambles against the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Linebacker Tackett Curtis #25 of the USC Trojans prior to a NCAA football game between the USC Trojans and the San Jose State Spartans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    The USC Trojans marching band prepares to march out of the tunnel prior to a NCAA football game between the USC Trojans and the San Jose State Spartans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Wide receiver Dorian Singer #15 of the USC Trojans rects after catching a pass for touchdown against the San Jose State Spartans as teammate wide receiver Kyron Hudson #10 of the USC Trojans looks on in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Quarterback Caleb Williams #13 of the USC Trojans against the San Jose State Spartans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro #2 of the San Jose State Spartans after being sacked by defensive lineman Jack Sullivan #99 of the USC Trojans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Running back Kairee Robinson #32 of the San Jose State Spartans runs or first down against defensive lineman Stanley Ta’ufo’ou #47 of the USC Trojans in the first half of a NCAA football game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Bronny James of the USC Trojans basketball team looks on with his teammates in the second half of a NCAA football game between the USC Trojans and the San Jose State Spartans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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    Bronny James, second from left, of the USC Trojans basketball team with the victory sign along with his teammates in the second half of a NCAA football game between the USC Trojans and the San Jose State Spartans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles on Saturday, August 26, 2023. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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LOS ANGELES – For a half, at least, it’s just as well that USC’s opener was on the Pac-12 Networks. Who among the Trojans would have wanted the masses to witness this?

For the first 30 minutes Saturday evening, the team with the outsized expectations – No. 6 in the AP poll, favored by 30 over San José State, star-studded, expected to make this just a light exercise – found itself in a way too competitive game. In this case, the designation “Week 0” – and since when did college football start copying high school terminology – was appropriate, maybe even prophetic.

There is a caste system in college football, as has become increasingly apparent in this most recent summer of realignment. And in the final season of a four-team College Football Playoff, an unforgiving landscape in which one loss at any time puts a team in a hole and a loss to a Group of Five team would end any championship hopes right out of the gate, Overreaction Sunday could have been particularly vicious.

No need, in this case.

The eventual 56-28 Trojans victory indeed turned out almost as lopsided as was projected by the smart guys in ‘Vegas, who had USC as a 30-point favorite coming in (and yes, some of the grumbling on social media concerned just that, so draw your own conclusions). What was supposed to be a throat-clearing, bench-emptying exercise was a one-touchdown game at halftime and just a 14-point game late in the third quarter, and Spartans quarterback Chevan Cordiero was keeping up with Caleb Williams for a while.

Williams, of course, is the returning Heisman Trophy winner, and SJSU coach Brent Brennan noted during the week that “we’re playing against the best player in America.” Cordiero, the same sort of rushing/passing threat if not on the same level, is the returning Mountain West offensive player of the year, passing for 3,251 yards and accounting for 23 passing touchdowns and nine more running last year for a team that was 7-5 and went to a bowl. (OK, it was the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and they lost, but a bowl’s a bowl.)

“The whole week, I didn’t get asked one question about San José State,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “(But) there was a respect factor for those guys in the locker room regardless of anything that was overlooked on the outside.”

The vast majority of the 63,411 fans who made it to the Coliseum Saturday were likely squirming at halftime, especially after Cordiero’s 28-yard touchdown pass to Nick Nash made it 21-14 with eight seconds left in the half. And it wasn’t confined to the seats, either.

“Walking off the field, there’s a bit of frustration that – a couple of the coaches, or myself, or the players that have been there and seen and known how it should go … in the first half, I just felt like we weren’t hitting on certain calibers and things like that that we’re going to hit on here soon,” Williams said of the mood at halftime.

But all were breathing easier after USC freshman Zachariah Branch asserted himself, with a 25-yard scoring reception from Williams and a 96-yard kickoff return for a score after SJSU had pulled within 35-21.

That kick return, by the way, started wtih a little stop-and-go move reminiscent of a guy named Reggie Bush. (And no, Bush’s number is not among the retired number banners draped over the unused bleachers in the peristyle end, though it should be only a matter of time, shouldn’t it?)

Bush was a transcendent player for the Pete Carroll Trojans, and let’s just say if the rules that are in place today were in place two decades ago, Bush’s net worth would be about what Williams’ is today, adjusted for inflation.

And it’s only one game but Branch, the first-year player from Las Vegas’ Bishop Gorman High, could turn out to be just as transcendent a player, with speed and moves and flair. He rushed once for 12 yards, had four receptions for 58 yards and a score – a 25-yard reception to make it 35-14 in the third quarter – and three punt returns for 66 yards as well as the 96-yard kickoff return. All-purpose yards: 232.

And Branch was invited to the post-game news conference with Riley and Williams. That never happens with a freshman, and maybe that’s an indication of his stature already in the program.

“He didn’t try to do too much, which is what guys sometimes in their first game will do,” Riley said. “He showed patience, especially on that return.”

How important is Game 1? It sets a tone, but the team you see on opening night usually isn’t as polished as the one you’ll see a few weeks down the road. That explains why, for the elite teams, openers are usually against an opponent that will push but not threaten. (If they do, look out below.)

“It’s the first look, right?” Riley said during the week. “There’s a lot of teams that have great first games that doesn’t necessarily translate into great seasons. And so it’s a starting point. I mean, we only get so many of these, and they’re all very important.

“… Your challenge is, like I said, the target always moves, right? And you’ve got to be ready to respond to that. And so, yeah, I mean, it’s super important, we need to start well, but we’re going to need to improve a lot and continue to grow no matter what happens.”

Bottom line: USC won, eventually with ease, and a lot of players got playing time (in fact, backup quarterback Miller Moss scored the Trojans’ final touchdown). There were big plays, there were opportunities to learn, and the next exam will be in a week against Nevada.

“I spoke to a bunch of (the) leaders in-game, right after Coach took me out,” Williams said. “And the message was, ‘We got a special team.’ But the second part of the message was, ‘We got a longggg way to go.’ “

The challenges are just beginning.

jalexander@scng.com


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