Gold: A look back at the season that was for Lincoln Riley -- and where the USC Trojans go from here
It was late on the night of Oct. 1 when Parker Thune knew.
A radio host and recruiting writer who covers the Oklahoma Sooners, Thune was watching the second quarter of a Week 5 matchup between USC and Arizona State. The Sun Devils’ first three drives had spanned 74 yards, 53 yards and 75 yards, with a pair of touchdowns and a field goal, possessions that chewed up more than a quarter of game time.
The Trojans would go on to win 42-25 that day, with Caleb Williams finishing with 348 yards and 4 total touchdowns (3 passing) with 1 interception, en route to a Heisman Trophy award in December.
But for Thune, it was all so … so … familiar.
In a sit-down session with local media on Jan. 10, Lincoln Riley let the cat out of the bag.
Alex Grinch will be retained as USC’s defensive coordinator, Lincoln Riley confirmed today.
— Ryan Kartje (@Ryan_Kartje) January 10, 2023
Alex Grinch wasn’t going anywhere.
“I’ve been through it enough with that guy to know, don’t bet against him,” he told local reporters. “Anybody in a situation like this where we know we need to take a big jump in all areas, and we need to be better as coaches. We need to be better as players. We need to own the things that we did well. We need to own and fix the things we didn’t do well,” Riley said. “I just know what he’s made of. I just do. And I know what’s getting ready to happen defensively. And so, I just have a confidence and a belief, and not just Alex, but the other guys in the room.
“I believe in the quality of people that we have in there.”
There’s loyalty, and then there’s loyalty to a fault.
And speaking of faults, USC’s defense this season had more cracks than the San Andreas. The Trojans finished 8th in the Pac-12 in rushing defense and 8th in passing defense.
That Arizona State game was just a preview of things to come. Electrifying quarterback play with a prolific passing attack. Touchdown after touchdown, on both sides of the ball. A competitive game where none should have existed.
For Thune and Oklahoma Sooners fans, it was a painful reminder of the Lincoln Riley Era in Norman, which was filled with tremendous highs and crushing lows, Heisman Trophies, Playoff appearances and defensive collapses and tons and tons of yards.
“The fans were very plugged into what was happening out there – there’s still some hurt feelings among this fan base – so there was no doubt we were keeping one eye on Trojan football,” Thune said. “When Arizona State happened, that’s when it really hit me, that it would end up being the same old, same old. That ASU team in 2022 was not a team that USC should’ve struggled with. That was not a competitive football team. USC won that game 42-25, but that doesn’t do justice to how well Arizona State moved the ball throughout that game. Sitting there, watching that game late on a Saturday night, watching them struggle — that led me to believe there were some issues on the horizon that were going to be brought to light.”
And they would, in the worst of ways.
Two weeks later, USC lost its first game of the season, 43-42. The Trojans allowed 562 yards, including 415 passing yards by Cam Rising, to go along with 5 total touchdowns.
Then they reeled off 5 straight wins, but not without some rocky moments.
- Allowing 37 points and 543 yards to Arizona.
- Surrendering 35 points and 469 yards to lowly Cal.
- Getting torched by Dorian Thompson-Robinson in a 48-45 squeaker at the Rose Bowl.
One nail-biter after another for Trojans fans whose expectations were growing by the week.
And then came the worst of it all. A 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 title game, followed by an epic collapse against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl, finalized with a 46-45 defeat.
Thune watched every subsequent game wondering if Riley had learned from his Sooner Days. Instead, more and more, he realized that Riley was set in his ways.
“As Riley spent more and more time at Oklahoma, progressing from Year 1 to 2 and onto Years 4 and 5, the more comfortable he became at Oklahoma, the less reliant he became on any defensive effort,” Thune said. “You saw a defense that was increasingly inept, increasingly flawed, continually bailed out and its weaknesses covered by a string of superheroes. Oklahoma had the best quarterback play in America from 2017-2021. As the years went by, Riley continually deemphasized the value of winning games on both sides of the ball and trusted his QB would be able to bail him out.
“To a certain extent, that worked.”
To a certain extent.
To be fair, we’re talking some rarified air here.
How many head coaches under the age of 40 can boast 5 10-win seasons in 6 years, including 3 12-win campaigns and 3 College Football Playoff berths? How many coaches have guided 3 quarterbacks to Heisman Trophy awards in a 6-year span?
Riley’s first 3 years at the helm of the Sooners will go down as perhaps the best 3-year stretch by a first-time head coach in Power 5 history. The Sooners went 36-6 from 2017-19 and appeared in 3 consecutive Playoff semifinals, where they suffered defensive missteps in each game.
And Oklahoma’s scoring defense rankings over the years were not pretty.
- 2017: 27.1 points per game allowed (68th of 130)
- 2018: 33.3 (101st of 130)
- 2019: 27.3 (64th of 130)
- 2020: 21.7 (29th of 128)
- 2021: 25.8 (60th of 130)
“Over the 5 years Riley was there, one of the things you consistently saw was there was a ceiling to how high they could fly,” Thune said. “That style of play – a defense that does just enough to hang in the game and a QB who can do literally whatever it takes – that works against the middle-tier teams in the Big 12. You can’t get away with that using that model against the blue-bloods of college football, especially the SEC. That’s how you saw it unravel in 2017 against Georgia, in 2018 against Alabama, and against LSU in 2019. In 2020 and ‘21, they weren’t even in that position; they tripped up early in the year against some very resilient Big 12 programs.
“But what you can conclude about Riley’s tenure at OU is the way that he built his program, how he orchestrated a game plan on a weekly basis, was conducive to winning against mediocre opponents and competition.”
The simple fact about the USC season that was is this: The Trojans didn’t win their first game over a ranked opponent until Week 12 against the cross-town Bruins, when they needed a last-minute interception to seal the game.
The more physical Utes bullied them around. The feisty Green Wave refused to quit.
All in all, it was a good season that had the potential to be epic. A major improvement and a let-down at the same time. A sign of great things to come and a missed opportunity.
And not just on the playing field.
“Recruits are certainly taking notice that it’s a huge blemish for USC,” said Blair Angulo, west region recruiting analyst for 247Sports. “There are question marks about what your potential is if you go there. There’s so many busts in recent years. It’s been easy to point out, remember this guy who went there, whatever happened to him?”
When USC is clicking, man, the Trojans really click. In a town with the Lakers and Dodgers, Clippers and Kings, Rams and Chargers, not to mention UCLA, and not to mention Hollywood and the beaches and perfect weather, when the Trojans are on a roll, they are a train that does not stop moving.
And that makes it so curious that the buzz feels almost completely off the Trojans.
Last year, they were reeling in Caleb Williams and Mario Williams and Travis Dye and maybe the best transfer haul in college football history, while planting seeds with 2023 5-star recruits who seemed to flip to USC by the week.
Th Trojans brought in 1 5-star (defensive back Domani Jackson) and 4 4-stars in a 5-player class, portending great things to come in high school recruiting.
This year, they signed 2 5-stars in wideout Zachariah Branch and quarterback Malachi Nelson and 8 4-stars, but didn’t have the kind of late recruiting splashes that some of their competition — namely Oregon and Colorado — had.
“They just weren’t good enough during the season in being able to bring in prospects to make a dent on some other classes,” Angulo said. “They struggled to build buzz and momentum, even though they were getting stuff done on the field. The lust wore off in a recruiting sense. It’s going to be interesting to see what (Riley’s) approach is. As far as what we’ve seen the first 2 years, he, in a way, prefers the player who is ready to turn the program around in the portal.”
The Trojans have had very good success through the portal this year, but not overwhelming success like one might imagine coming off a 7-win turnaround and a NY6 bowl berth.
“Just look at what happened with Matayo Uiagalelei,” Angulo said. “When Riley arrived, with all the staff members, the biggest message was he wanted to take back the west. He did in a short amount of time, getting Nelson, getting Branch, getting Makai Lemon. They won that PR battle. But the season they had on the field and the lack of development, I think that ultimately lost them Matayo. They’re not present in SoCal. When USC is humming and they are USC, they’re getting those players.
“There’s no reason you should be losing a player to Oregon, which didn’t even make it to the conference championship game.”
Sitting in the bowels of Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas following the Pac-12 Championship Game, the blood was gone from Riley’s face. He knew what was on the line that night.
Win, and the Trojans were in the College Football Playoff, where anything can happen (except, of course, a Georgia loss).
“Obviously, disappointing night for us,” he said, his head hung low. “You come as far as this team has come and this program has come in the last 12 months, you get that close to winning a championship, possibly much more. Obviously do not get it done, it’s a tough pill to swallow. When you get to the top like this, these games that have so much riding on them, it takes so much to get here, especially where we started from. To get here and not get it done, not play our best, very, very disappointed. Very disappointed locker room. No other way to say it.”
And so it has been for Riley so often in his head coaching career. Close, but no cigar. On the verge, but falling short.
Same story, so familiar. Just trade Norman for Hollywood.
The critical question becomes: How does Riley change the ending in 2023? Or can he?
Fundamentally, the Trojans get back to playing more sound football.
As superhuman as Williams proved to be, he also exited the pocket to frequently and abandoned his immediate progressions. At times, to great success, of course. Most of the time to great success. But also in a way that is not sustainable against sound, disciplined defenses, like Utah’s proved to be in the Pac-12 title game.
And speaking of disciplined defenses, USC was anything but in 2022. Get this: A hodgepodge mix of unfamiliar players, foisted upon each other from the transfer portal, all looking to make their own impact and improve their stock in the eyes of NFL decision-makers, for some reason, didn’t end up playing the most cohesive brand of football. Are we really surprised by that? As obvious as it was that USC’s offense found a way to gel together, it was obvious the defense did not. Never was the Trojans’ tackling efforts — or lack thereof — more exposed than in Las Vegas, when the Utes seemed to run right through them.
If Riley and Grinch can find a way to instill a team-first attitude and take the hero ball down a notch, USC will be right back in the CFP mix.
If not, Trojan fans are in for another good year that will feel like it could have been so much more.