June 21, 2024

The vibes, as the kids say, were off.

Even when USC was undefeated, putting up record-breaking numbers on offense behind a quarterback still favored to win his second Heisman, nothing felt good enough. Coach Lincoln Riley pushed his team to “play on our own terms,” but his attempts to ignore and isolate from outside criticism grew futile. Expectations crept in. Expectations wore the Trojans down. Expectations felt bigger than the wins USC piled up en route to a 6-0 record.

“We let some of the appreciation and fun out of winning get away there in the middle,” Riley said this week. “I’ve seen that happen before, especially this year, especially susceptible to it, and high-level programs like this.”

With their playoff hopes dashed, the No. 24 Trojans will try to find their joy again in chasing a conference championship. USC (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) is still squarely in the Pac-12 title hunt despite a difficult four-game final stretch that includes two top-10 teams.

“We haven’t played to the way we think we can play,” Riley said. “And you persevere through it and you overcome it, the energy and the excitement and the camaraderie that comes from that is so powerful. And that’s the opportunity we got right now.”

Here are four things to watch in USC’s game against the Bears (3-4, 1-3 Pac-12) at California Memorial Stadium on Saturday at 1 p.m. (Pac-12 Network):

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