May 23, 2024

On one extreme, there exists a USC football fan who was thrilled by the Trojans’ escape from Berkeley, how they made just enough plays in the fourth quarter to come back from a two-touchdown deficit and beat the California Golden Bears by a point.

This fan is the one Lincoln Riley has been directing his talking points to during the past four weeks. You know, how the coaches are putting the players in the right places (but they just have to execute better), how it’s just a handful of plays that led to the Trojans leaving Notre Dame Stadium down by four touchdowns. This fan nods along, choosing to believe the big picture for Riley’s program is as bright as ever. After all, there’s been enough entitled whining the past 15 years.

On the other extreme, there exists a USC football fan who is so fed up with watching this team’s weekly battle with itself that he or she is hoping the social media rumors are true and Riley is eyeing an exit to the NFL after the season. This fan has seen enough poor tackling, lackadaisical quarterbacking, failed two-point conversions and untimely penalties to last a lifetime and is ready to blow the whole thing up less than two years in — even with the Trojans still controlling their own destiny for the Pac-12 championship with three games to play.

Just a guess: This fan jumped to support Riley’s decision to suspend the Southern California News Group’s USC beat reporter, Luca Evans, because the coach could do no wrong in September. But Saturday night when Evans asked Riley if he would be considering making personnel or schematic changes to his defense after another pitiful showing, it was Riley’s response that drew this fan’s frustration.

“I’m gonna try to beat Washington next week,” Riley said. “Those are my thoughts on it. That’s my job, to get this team ready, that’s sitting 5-1 in the best conference in America, to try to go win it. That’s where my focus is.”

In between the extremes, as with anything that brings up such deep emotional stress as this 2023 USC football season, are many fans who wish they were mature enough about their love for the Trojans to still feel as grateful for Riley as they did a month ago but can’t deny what their eyes — albeit “untrained” as Riley would remind them — have witnessed.

Nearly losing to Arizona at home in a trap-game scenario was one thing. The humiliation in South Bend was worse, but ultimately, when your Heisman Trophy winning quarterback plays that poorly, you can see it was just one of those humbling nights. Losing to the depleted 2023 Utah team at the Coliseum wasn’t acceptable and became downright embarrassing Saturday after Oregon dominated the Utes 35-6 at vaunted Rice-Eccles Stadium.

But in Berkeley, where thousands of USC fans traveled for their last “Weekender” trip to the Bay Area for the foreseeable future, Riley actually flirted with losing the majority of the base. Now, I’m not saying they’d be gone for good. He’d just have to earn their loyalty again after squandering it the first time.

Riley should understand that not everybody can be as loyal as him. USC fans who desperately want to cheer for an elite team again are not going to show the same patience with Riley as he has defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Riley’s loyalty to Grinch last offseason, more than anything else, is what has dimmed the shine from USC’s one-time savior.

This week, Grinch’s task was to slow down Cal, which entered the game No. 56 nationally in total offense at 407.6 yards per game. It’s a capable group that has found a rhythm of late with freshman quarterback Fernando Mendoza. Saturday, the Golden Bears put up 527 yards on the Trojans, and it would have likely been much more if Cal’s star running back, Jaydn Ott, hadn’t spend most of the second half on the sideline after getting banged up.

Ott had 21 carries for 153 yards and three touchdowns in basically one half.

This is Grinch’s fifth season as Riley’s defensive coordinator. Everyone knows there won’t be a sixth, but the fact that USC is having to endure the fifth was a major miscalculation by Riley.

USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch during practice in March 2022.

USC coach Lincoln Riley, left, talks with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch during practice in March 2022.

(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

Riley assumed that the defense would improve at least enough to allow for Williams to take the Trojans to the next level. Only, Williams has not found last season’s Heisman juice, putting more on the shoulders of a defense that still can’t consistently do the basics.

I can understand why Riley gave Grinch this season. The two are obviously bonded, and Grinch is among the men who hopped on a private jet from Oklahoma to Los Angeles (although Grinch was going to be looking for a new job anyway, so it wasn’t some remarkable show of loyalty to Riley). It’s hard to imagine what it must be like to fire a friend, but that’s what is going to be asked of Riley in the coming weeks. He’s paid a ridiculous salary at 40 years old to do hard things.

A year ago, Riley had built up the goodwill to keep Grinch by turning the Trojans from 4-8 to 11-3. But in doing so, he gambled with USC fans’ trust and, with three games left in his second season, is on the verge of losing it.

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