Jamil Muhammad had his back turned to the play. He didn’t know Zachariah Branch was whizzing up the field on a 96-yard kickoff return until the San José State player Muhammad was blocking raised the verbal white flag.
“Oh,” the USC rush end heard, “he gone.”
Branch’s feats had even his opponents in awe as the freshman 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 at the Coliseum on Saturday.
Branch's burst to the end zone with 1:34 remaining in the third quarter maintained USC’s surge out of the locker room, as the Trojans (1-0) scored touchdowns on five consecutive drives in the second half.
Branch 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 and 66 on punt returns, earning a rare postgame press conference appearance under coach Lincoln Riley, who rarely lets freshmen speak to local reporters this early in their careers.
“I felt like he earned it,” Riley said. “Made an impact on offense, made an impact on special teams, thought he did a good job not trying to do too much, which guys in their first game sometimes will do.”
The Trojans 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.
After San José’s Nick Nash fought through a defensive holding penalty to catch a 32-yard touchdown pass and cut USC’s lead to 35-21 with 1:50 remaining in the third quarter, a nervous pall spread over the announced crowd of 63,411. Branch received the kickoff near the four-yard line, tiptoed forward slowly and hit overdrive straight up the middle.
That’s when Muhammad heard Branch was out of reach and turned to get a front-row seat to the show.
“We was both watching,” Muhammad said with a wide smile. “He enjoyed it as much as I did.”
Branch zig-zagged to the sideline. He cut back a final time. The fans released a cheer that was both joyous and relieved.
“Once I touched that end zone, the crowd turnt me up a little bit,” said Branch, the first USC player to score a touchdown on a kick return since 2019 and the first true freshman to do so since 2014.
Branch even outshined reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams, who completed 18 of 25 passes for 278 yards and four touchdowns. Williams 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, but when Williams exitedearly in the fourth quarter with a 49-21 lead, the quarterback wasn’t satisfied with just notching a win.
“The message was we got a special team,” Williams said. “The second part of the message was that we got … a long way to go and a lot to get better at.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.