USC defeated Stanford 41-28 Saturday in a nationally-televised primetime game that validated what fans saw in the Trojans’ season opener against Rice. The defense had 4 turnovers — again. Sophomore quarterback Caleb Williams threw 2 touchdowns to junior receiver Jordan Addison — again. And, the Trojans had seemingly already won the game as they entered halftime — again.
“I’m thrilled for the victory… I mean just look at 12 months ago. This is a good Stanford team and a lot has changed. I’m proud of the way our guys responded,” said head coach Lincoln Riley, referencing USC’s recent struggles against Stanford — particularly on the road.
USC had not won in Stanford Stadium since 2014 when former NFL third-round draft pick Cody Kessler was quarterback for the Trojans.
Williams, who will likely be selected before the third round of the NFL draft, continued to live up to the preseason Heisman hype. The Oklahoma transfer threw for 341 yards, 4 touchdowns and had a 74% completion rate.
Addison continued to look like one of the best receivers in college football, adding 7 receptions for 172 yards — with a 75-yard house call to answer Stanford’s first touchdown of the game.
On Stanford’s opening drive, redshirt junior defensive back Max Williams snagged his first interception of the season. Max, who has suffered two ACL tears in his football career, including one last season, was happy to validate the hard work and physical therapy he had gone through to reach this point.
“This time last year, I was rehabbing from an injury on the sidelines, watching [with] nothing else to contribute, so it just makes me much more appreciative,” Max said. “I’m having fun out there, I’m healthy and it’s just a blessing to be back out there to make plays.”
Max’s head coach and starting quarterback quickly jumped in with their own words of admiration for the cornerback.
“This guy has been a warrior for us,” Riley said. “This guy, in a lot of ways, embodies what we want in this program — a toughness and a desire to be out there.”
“Since I’ve gotten here, he’s made me better,” Caleb Williams said. “He came back in fall [after reaggravating an injury] and he played five different positions on defense, wherever they needed him.”
Following Max’s interception, the Trojan offense quickly found the end zone for the first score of the game. Caleb Williams found a wide-open redshirt freshman tight end Lake McRee for the 5-yard score. It was McRee’s first touchdown of the season.
While USC’s offense surged in the first half, Stanford exposed some flaws in USC’s run defense. Junior running back E.J. Smith, son of NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, took delayed handoff after delayed handoff, lulling USC into pass protection before taking off for solid gains seemingly every time he touched the ball. Smith finished with 102 rushing yards and 2 touchdowns, with one coming in the air.
“We missed a couple of gaps in the run game,” Riley said. “I thought we defended the throws honestly pretty well… we were explosive defensively with the sacks and turnovers… we got to get more consistent.”
USC’s first major mistake on defense came off of a reverse sweep by Stanford, which resulted in a 50-yard gain for junior tight end Benjamin Yurosek. Smith scored on a wide open reception, bringing the Cardinal within one touchdown of the Trojans.
Caleb Williams took no time in answering Stanford’s first score of the game, throwing a perfect ball to a streaking Addison — who caught the 75-yard pass in stride, shook his defender and scored his second touchdown of the game.
On the following drive, Stanford slowly but surely pushed the ball down field, with junior quarterback Tanner McKee completing passes to Yurosek and senior wide receiver Elijah Higgens for 18-yard completions. However, Max Williams forced an E.J. Smith fumble on the Trojan 2-yard line and redshirt senior defensive back Mekhi Blackmon dove on it for the recovery, continuing the pattern of USC’s defense covering up their mistakes by causing turnovers.
This prompted a 7-play, 98-yard touchdown drive in which sophomore wide receiver Mario Williams caught his first touchdown of the season. USC now led 28-7 and Stanford Stadium shook with the jubilation of thousands of raucous USC fans.
After a Stanford score brought the Cardinal within 2 touchdowns of USC, redshirt senior running back Travis Dye took a 27-yard house call for the final score of the half, bringing the Trojans’ to a 35-14 lead. The Trojans scored on 5 consecutive touchdowns, but did not get in the end zone in the second half — settling for just a pair of field goals.
“We just didn’t do a good job executing how we were in the first half, so we just got a little bit of stuff to clean up, but we just got to finish that game off stronger,” Addison said. “But we got out of there with the win and no win is easy.”