May 27, 2024

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The white jerseys of Utah weren’t supposed to be dancing across the Coliseum field while the cardinal jerseys of the USC were doubled over in tears.

The rollicking Coliseum crowd was not supposed to alter its cheers to boos, then jeers, then stunned silence.

The Trojans were supposed to win games like this, a Pac-12 home showdown with the defending conference champs, a grudge match against a team that beat them twice last season, a monumental moment.

This is why they hired Lincoln Riley, right?

Yet on a brutal Saturday night, their $10-million-a-year coach’s promise of a championship culture once again crumpled like a cheap suit.

Riley failed the moment. He failed the Trojans. He failed the Coliseum. He is failing this season.

The Utes’ 34-32 victory on a last-second field goal by Cole Becker was just the latest example of how, in the second year of Riley’s revival tour, the Trojans are rapidly and reprehensibly regressing.

After 22 games as USC coach, Riley is 17-5.

After 22 games as USC coach, Clay Helton was 17-5.

Chew on that one while you gnaw at a second consecutive loss that removes the Trojans from national championship contention while also probably ending their conference title hopes.

No team has ever qualified for the College Football Playoff semifinals with two losses, so that ends that. And, what, this team is going to beat Washington and Oregon on consecutive Saturdays to advance to the conference championship game? Fat chance.

USC coach Lincoln Riley walks on the sidelines during Saturday's 34-32 loss to Utah at the Coliseum.

USC coach Lincoln Riley walks on the sidelines during Saturday’s 34-32 loss to Utah at the Coliseum.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“As gut wrenching a defeat as I can remember in my career,” said Riley afterward in a press conference room filled with the loud music coming from the celebratory Utah locker room.

Gut wrenching? Didn’t you just experience one of these …last week? In that national embarrassment at Notre Dame?

Riley added, “This is when you get tested as a coach and a leader.”

By any measure of Saturday’s debacle, he is flunking that test.

First, he is flunking a defense that has been horribly mismanaged by his buddy Alex Grinch yet is continually supported by Riley. This time, the dazed and confused unit allowed a toothless Utah offense to drive 54 yards in less than two minutes to set up the winning 38-yard field goal. The drive was fueled by a reckless roughing and targeting penalty against Bear Alexander and an inexcusable 26-yard scramble by third-string quarterback Bryson Barnes.

This same defense allowed the Utes to gain a season-high 482 yards while equaling their season high in points. And yet Riley continues to endorse Grinch while scolding those who can’t see what he has repeatedly called an improving unit.

“If our fight stays like it would be tonight, we’ll have a shot obviously against anybody.” Riley said.

Who is he kidding? After leading 14-7 early, the Trojans “fought” their way to a 28-14 deficit against the Utes, then only came back thanks to Calen Bullock’s interception return for a touchdown and a score set up by Zachariah Branch’s 61-yard punt return.

There was no consistent fight anywhere on the field Saturday. There were only mistakes, missteps and confusion.

“It was a good heavyweight battle,” said Riley, yet his team filled with all-star transfers more closely resembles a lightweight.

Riley is also flunking an offense where defending Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Caleb Williams seems disconnected and the playcalling seems just plain weird.

USC wide receiver Michael Jackson III can't haul in a pass on a two-point conversion attempt.

USC wide receiver Michael Jackson III can’t haul in a pass on a two-point conversion attempt in the fourth quarter against Utah.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Williams, who had already blown his chances at a second Heisman, failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time as a Trojan while absorbing four sacks and making several bad throws. It surely doesn’t help him that Riley refuses to stick with a running game that works. Witness the fact that Marshawn Lloyd scored on a 45-yard run in the first quarter and yet only carried the ball seven times the entire game.

“At times we ran it well, at times we got stuffed,” Riley said, adding, “I had a couple of calls certainly I’d love to have back.”

He also presided over two failed two-point conversion attempts that were the epitome of mass confusion, each one resulting in a failed Williams pass over a crowded end zone.

“My job is to get better just like everybody else,” Riley said. “I’ve had, I think, an OK track record in calling plays. Confident in my ability and our ability to do that, but we’ve got to be better for each other.”

Finally, Riley is also flunking the important realm of public perception. Like every football coach, he controls the team’s media access, so it falls on him that for the first time in memory Saturday, no USC players were made available for postgame interviews.

So much for public accountability. So much for public responsibility. So much for answering to a passionate fan base that has plenty of questions.

Many of the Trojans are paid well, with Williams making millions. Connecting with their fans is part of the job. By presiding over this latest shame just weeks after he suspended a reporter’s credentials, Riley has created arguably the lowest point in USC’s long and admirable history of sports media relations.

Riley claims his team is paying too much attention to the sort of commotion caused by the critics.

“All the outside noise … it can get to you,” he said. “And I think at times, fair to say it’s got to this team. … I think we’ve had to really fight to keep things on our own terms.”

USC running back MarShawn Lloyd kneels and covers his face with his hand after losing 34-32 to Utah

USC running back MarShawn Lloyd reacts after USC’s 34-32 loss to Utah at the Coliseum on Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

This has been written many times before, but it bears repeating. Riley must remember he is no longer coaching in Oklahoma, he is coaching in Los Angeles, a place defined by the noise, a place where one is paid well to both create and endure the noise, a place where he owes it to his players to learn how to deal with the noise.

Riley has arguably the biggest noise job in all of college football. He is supposed to amplify, not squelch. Yet Saturday night ended with deathly quiet surrounding what appears to be another lost season.

Lincoln Riley stood in the same stadium where USC once held an upper deck press conference proclaiming him the savior, only he was on a field littered with failure, a long way down.

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