LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two-thirds of the way through Lincoln Riley’s second season at Southern California, the Trojans’ national title chances and Caleb Williams’ hopes of a Heisman Trophy repeat are all but gone.
Oh, and Riley’s record through his first 22 games at USC is exactly the same as that of his comprehensively maligned predecessor, Clay Helton.
This clearly isn’t what USC had in mind when it paid top dollar to lure Riley from Oklahoma nearly two years ago with the explicit understanding that the Trojans would return to the national prominence demanded by their deep-pocketed boosters, a resource-rich university and decades of NFL-bound players.
Combined with the massive expansion of the transfer portal, Riley has everything a coach could need to succeed quickly, even while inheriting a decayed program.
Riley is 17-5 at USC, but absolutely nobody is happy.
Only a spectacular finish by these Trojans (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) could repair the damage of back-to-back losses to Notre Dame and Utah — defeats that occurred after several weeks of steadily deteriorating play by Williams and his teammates.
“Definitely not a feeling that I want to get used to,” Riley said after the Trojans lost 34-32 to Utah on Saturday night by allowing a lengthy Utes drive in the final two minutes and a field goal at the gun. “As gut-wrenching a defeat as I can remember in my career. Hate it for the guys in there. We fought our tails off. We fought so hard.”
USC dropped to No. 24 in the AP Top 25 on Sunday, falling six spots after its fourth straight loss to the Utes. It’s the Trojans’ lowest ranking since Riley’s arrival, but their position has slipped for five consecutive weeks now while USC’s play failed to match everyone’s expectations, particularly on defense.
Riley probably knows the Trojans’ loftiest goals are pretty much out of reach for 2023, but he wants his team to stay focused on what’s still possible.
“We don’t come in every single week talking about winning a national championship, going to playoffs, and I don’t know where that narrative starts,” Riley said. “You come in every single week, try and fight your tail off to go play well and win a ballgame. It’s a strain every week to do it, and it’s a fight every week to do it. We’ve won a hell of a lot more here than we’ve lost. Are we satisfied at all sitting here at 6-2? Of course we’re not. I mean, as much as it hurts anybody on the outside, I promise you it hurts us 10 times more.”
The Trojans are Riley’s team, but Williams is their clear leader on the field — and the Heisman winner isn’t getting the same results as he did in his charmed LA debut.
Williams is still the consensus No. 1 prospect for the next NFL draft, but he has played three of the worst games of his college career over the past three weeks, throwing more interceptions (3) than touchdown passes (2) while getting sacked 13 times.
Williams passed for just 219 yards and a touchdown while USC needed triple overtime to fend off a clearly inferior Arizona team at home. He then threw a career-worst three interceptions and never looked comfortable at South Bend. Against Utah, he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time at USC despite making several big plays.
Williams didn’t say anything publicly about the Trojans’ latest loss because Riley inexplicably refused to make players available to the media after the game. It’s just the latest way the coach from tiny Muleshoe, Texas, has acted as if major-market Los Angeles is overwhelming him at times this season.
Riley has demonstrated a thin skin to criticism, and he repeatedly has the USC defense is playing better than its nationwide critics understand — even while the Trojans are giving up 407.6 yards per game this season, good for 104th in the FBS, and 30.5 points per game, ranking 105th.
Riley got into an ugly public spat with a newspaper beat reporter last month for a series of supposed infractions of USC’s rules for covering the team. Riley then ordered a media blackout after the well-fought, narrow loss to Utah — hardly a cause for his players to feel the embarrassment or persecution Riley apparently anticipated.
While sitting alone in front of reporters Saturday night, Riley actually emphasized the reason why his media ban was an overreaction: The Trojans’ season is far from over.
After a visit to struggling California next week, USC faces Washington, Oregon and UCLA in November to close the regular season. With four straight wins, USC is in the Pac-12 title mix — or with multiple losses, Riley’s Trojans could be in a much worse mess.
“It’s important for us to take stock of that we still sit in a very advantageous position in this conference,” Riley said. “We’ve got some big opportunities coming up. There’s a lot left that’s going to happen, and if we’ll continue to fight and prepare the way that we did this week, we’ll have our chances.”
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