Move over, Caleb Williams. Zachariah Branch is here for his moment.
The freshman receiver stole the show in his college debut, jolting No. 6 USC out of its offseason slumber with 232 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns in a season-opening 56-28 victory over San José State at the Coliseum on Saturday.
After San José’s Nick Nash caught a 32-yard touchdown pass to cut USC’s lead to 35-21 with 1:50 remaining in the third quarter, casting a nervous pall over the announced crowd of 63,411, Branch received the kickoff near the four-yard line, tip-toed forward slowly and hit overdrive straight up the middle. He hopped over a tackler and the crowd rumbled with excitement. He zig-zagged to the sideline and cut back a final time on a 96-yard touchdown as the fans released a cheer that was both joyous and relieved.
The Trojans (1-0) needed the electric receiver’s play to save them from an otherwise lackluster opener in which they led by only seven at halftime and featured a new-look defense that, at times, looked back to its old ways.
Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, completed 18 of 25 passes for 278 yards and four touchdown. While he provided the type of highlight fans have grown accustomed to when he dropped a snap, recovered it and slung a 76-yard touchdown strike to Tahj Washington in the second quarter, he ceded the main spotlight to Branch, who tied for the team lead with four receptions for 58 yards and a 25-yard touchdown, also in the third quarter. The receiver had 12 yards rushing, 96 on the kick return and 66 on punt returns.
Branch was the first USC player to score a touchdown off a kick return since 2019 and the first true freshman to do so since 2014.
Coaches and teammates raved about the former five-star prospect’s talent during training camp as he worked his way into the starting unit. But coach Lincoln Riley publicly tempered expectations for Branch when asked of the freshman’s progress, saying nonchalantly that Branch had been working with all groups evenly. The receiver room was one of USC’s deepest positions, making it difficult for the 5-foot-10, 170-pound prospect to break through.
But not only did the Las Vegas native the start in his first college game, he also had the first play from scrimmage designed for him. He took a lateral pass from Williams and rushed for nine yards.
Williams and Branch connected again with six minutes remaining in the third quarter as Branch took a short pass, broke through three would-be tacklers and ran 25 yards into the end zone for his first touchdown.