June 23, 2024

USC hasn’t played a game in nearly six weeks, but the time has been far from restful.

Since losing to UCLA in a demoralizing regular-season finale on Nov. 18, the Trojans have overhauled the defensive coaching staff, lost 17 players to transfers with more to sit out because of NFL draft preparations, and added the next wave of players during a busy early signing period. Transfers are already starting to trickle in for next season.

For a program working to put a disappointing season in the rear-view mirror, Wednesday’s Holiday Bowl at 5 p.m. in Petco Park against No. 15 Louisville feels more like an inconvenient chore than an opportunity for a silver lining.

Caleb Williams’ USC career is already unceremoniously over as he will not play in the game. While the Heisman Trophy winner has not formally announced his intention to pursue an NFL career, he said last month it would be unlikely that he would skip the bowl game while returning to college. In Williams’ place, Miller Moss will get his first start as just one of the players hoping to finish this season with a strong audition for next year.

“It’s unique now,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said last week, “because part of you feels like, it’s almost like you’re halfway into this year and halfway into next year. … I’m looking forward to so many of these young guys, new guys that are with us right now. They’re gonna get a way different, and in some ways, probably better opportunity than they had all year to really go showcase themselves.”

The Trojans (7-5) are missing key players on both sides of the ball after transfer portal defections and NFL draft entrants.

Leading rusher MarShawn Lloyd, who ran for 845 yards and nine touchdowns, opted for the pros and left redshirt senior Austin Jones to lead freshmen Quinten Joyner and A’Marion Peterson. Freshman receivers Ja’Kobi Lane and Duce Robinson earned rave reviews from teammates during bowl practices while stepping up for Mario Williams, who is set to transfer for the second time in his college career, and NFL-bound Brenden Rice.

Starting cornerback Domani Jackson entering the portal and All-American safety Calen Bullock beginning his draft preparation will leave holes in USC’s secondary. But redshirt senior safety Max Williams said he can’t wait to see cornerback Tre’Quon Fegans (nine tackles, five games) and safety Anthony Beavers Jr. (13 tackles, nine games) get their opportunities.

Williams, too, could have abdicated his spot as he intends to declare for the draft, but the Gardena Serra alumnus wants to play for his childhood dream school a final time before pursuing an his NFL career. Receiver Tahj Washington already accepted an invitation to the East-West Shrine Game, a premier scouting event for NFL hopefuls, but has plans for one final addition to his college game tape.

Even with the program in flux, there is still motivation to finish the year right.

“I love this program. I love football,” Washington said, “and any time I get the opportunity to play, I’m going to play.”

USC hasn’t won a bowl game since the thrilling Sam Darnold-led Rose Bowl in 2017. Last season’s loss to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl cast a dark cloud over the program as a 15-point, fourth-quarter collapse sent the Trojans into the offseason with two consecutive losses. This year’s late-season swoon could be even worse as USC lost five of its last six regular-season games.

“I know those guys, that loss from Tulane was on their mind all offseason,” said edge rusher Jamil Muhammad, who will return next season. “So I definitely don’t want to go through that with them again. It’s all about finishing strong and going off to the offseason.”

Louisville (10-3) is trying to finish a standout season under first-year coach Jeff Brohm that included the program’s first appearance in the ACC championship game and first 10-win season since 2013. The Cardinals will do it without starting running back Jawhar Jordan and leading receiver Jamari Thrash, who are both heading to the NFL. Jordan, who rushed for 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns, was Louisville’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2019. Thrash had 63 catches for 858 yards and six touchdowns.

Defensive back Derrick Edwards, who appeared in 11 games , is one of 11 Louisville players who entered the portal.

The half-in, half-out nature of college football in December is “a weird position to be in,” USC center Justin Dedich said. For the last five years, he could take solace in knowing he would be returning. Not anymore.

It’s why, to the two-time team captain, this game is especially important.

“I’m doing this to make sure that the tone is set for the beginning of next year,” Dedich said. “I’ve taken pride in that … leaving that legacy on a high note for this team going into the 2024 year.”

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