Lincoln Riley’s Trojans spelled it out clearly Saturday night during their meek little showing in South Bend. They are not going to break through this season or next, their first playing a schedule full of brawny, stubborn Midwestern teams that have all been losing to USC in Rose Bowls for generations and are thirsty for revenge.
48-20? Clay Helton’s final parting gift is that Saturday wasn’t the worst defeat the Trojans have experienced at the hands of the Fighting Irish in recent years (Notre Dame won 49-14 in 2017). Regardless, for the last few weeks, USC has looked just as clueless and poorly prepared as it was under Helton.
The Trojans stink on offense, defense and special teams — and in the realm of “situational mastery,” as Helton used to say. They are masters of zero football situations.
But, a short stretch of glaring ineptitude does not mean that Riley won’t get the job done for USC. It just means that we can now all see — Riley included — the job for what it has always been: A full-fledged, long-term rebuild.
Is Riley up for it? Is the USC fan base? Are Rick Caruso and the donors who ponied up to buy out Helton and make Riley feel like he just struck oil out in his native West Texas? We’re about to find out who is willing to get their hands dirty to create something lasting. Because there’s no gusher right now in downtown Los Angeles.
Dang, that was hard to watch. I can’t imagine what it was like for a diehard Trojan who’s suffered through the last 15 years. How could USC with a returning Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback be that far away from elite?
It’s not that we’ve been hoodwinked or something sinister. But everything that’s happened from the moment USC stole Riley from Oklahoma — until Saturday — has felt like trippy delirium.
At Riley’s introductory news conference atop the Coliseum, our Bill Plaschke asked him how long it will take, and he said, “In this day and age, I think it can happen quickly, I do. … With the way college football works, you can turn over rosters in so many different ways, we’ll be very deliberate and creative and intentional about that. … I just look at it like, how can we not do it? No time is soon enough.”
Well, we now know how USC cannot do it.
The way Riley talked that dreamy day, he must have felt confident Caleb Williams was going to find his way from Oklahoma to USC, along with Georgia’s starting defensive line. Or maybe it was just the moment talking.
Williams’ commitment to the Trojans made anything feel possible. Then Riley pulled in star wide receiver Jordan Addison, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner from Pittsburgh, from the transfer portal. When Pitt coach Pat Narduzzi called out USC for allegedly buying Addison’s commitment with a name, image and likeness deal, Riley already had Trojans from coast to coast backing him on social media.
The new guy was cutthroat, willing to raid the transfer portal for fresh talent across all position groups and tell guys who’d already bled out some cardinal and gold during trying seasons that they had better find another place to play college football.
Sure, 2022 wasn’t perfect, but a close loss at Utah was understandable in year one. And the Pac-12 championship defeat to the Utes could be easily stomached due to Williams’ hamstring injury which limited his transcendence for one half. It was logical to think that if he hadn’t gotten hurt, the Trojans would have prevailed and made the playoff. The meltdown against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl could be written off as a hangover from that disappointment.
In 2023, with Williams back for (theoretically) one last season, the expectations for many elevated to playoff or bust. Riley acknowledged that this season was a special opportunity, saying, “These windows are short. You only get so many shots at this.”
Given the pressure to get it done this fall, I can see why Riley stuck with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. He valued stability over starting over since he probably felt his defense didn’t need to get that much better for Williams to put the Trojans over the top.
After Saturday’s stunning embarrassment, Riley can start viewing such crucial decisions with a longer lens.
The portal patchwork worked well to create buzz around the program and flip USC from a total mess into a team that, while flawed, could spend time in the top 10 and tease its fans into believing.
Riley’s salary plus the program’s expectations gave him no other option but to use every tool at his disposal to accomplish something tangible as quickly as possible. The portal was the only path.
He should (and will) continue to use it to improve the roster, but he’s also going to need to develop high-school talent. It’s too early to know how Riley’s staff has done there, but success in the Big Ten transition will depend on the last two years’ freshmen turning into productive upperclassmen, particularly along the line of scrimmage.
Saturday night, USC could not hang with a pretty-OK Notre Dame team which had two losses.
USC’s portal-infused offensive line was overmatched, the Kryptonite hanging around Williams’ neck. The quarterback nicknamed “Superman” looked withered by the task rescuing his team on this night, tossing three bewildering interceptions that basically sealed the Trojans’ fate by halftime.
USC’s portal-infused wide receiver corps dropped passes at key moments and could not get open downfield. Arizona transfer Dorian Singer was supposed to replace Addison, but he was either overhyped or Riley has struggled to integrate him into the offense.
Notre Dame’s 251 yards suggests USC’s defense had a solid night, but most of the credit for that goes to the offense for turning the ball over and giving Notre Dame a short field. The Trojans winning the time of possession battle 35 to 25 has never meant so little.
When USC scored to pull within 31-20 in the fourth quarter, the defense would have had a chance to get a stop and prove something. Of course the special teams unit wouldn’t allow it that chance, giving up a kickoff return for a touchdown, effectively ending the Trojans’ comeback attempt.
A season and a half into Riley’s tenure, USC looks lost. I never would have thought a Riley team would lack identity, but it seemed the Trojans — and their coach — did not know who they were in their showcase game of the year to this point.
I suspect that Riley tried to lean on the ground game and use less tempo early in the game in an effort to protect his much-maligned defense later. The logic was sound, but USC is not used to executing that kind of plan.
Riley remains a young head coach. He just turned 40. He’s never had to rebuild a program from the ground up before. That’s what the job description has been from the jump, but Williams’ gifts simply papered over it.
USC could finish 8-4. If UCLA’s Dante Moore happens to not throw a pick-six when the teams play Nov. 18, possibly 7-5.
Those who have been worried that Riley is bound for the NFL at some point soon should relax. We have no reason to think that he isn’t telling the truth that his mission is to build USC into a national championship caliber team, and the Trojans are not on the verge.
So, Riley is not a miracle worker. He is still learning, even though he’s paid like one of the legends of the sport. We can now view his USC salary not as a guarantee that championship trophies will return to Heritage Hall but as a hopeful projection.
That’s OK, but Riley and the entire Trojan family better be ready to dig in together. There will be no quick fix anymore.
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