Gold: Now the hard part starts for Lincoln Riley, Trojans
LOS ANGELES — At one point this season, you could’ve looked at the tail end of USC’s schedule and checked it off as 2 easy wins.
People forget now, but 3 uninspiring weeks into the 2022 season, UCLA was a complete disappointment. The Bruins trailed Bowling Green, 17-7, before scoring 38 unanswered points. The Bruins cruised to an easy win over their first HBCU matchup in history with Alabama State, but they needed a game-winning field goal as time expired to sneak by South Alabama, 32-31.
Despite a 3-0 start, UCLA fans were none-too-pleased with Chip Kelly.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame fans were screaming for Marcus Freeman’s head after 3 even worse games. The first-year coach fell to Ohio State in his first career regular-season game at the helm. Forgivable.
But losing to Marshall the following Saturday, 26-21, and needing a touchdown pass with 14 seconds left to even make it that close? Unforgivable.
A week later, needing 10 4th-quarter points to beat lowly Cal, 24-17? Uninspiring.
Three weeks into the season, the Fighting Irish were in shambles.
So it’s understandable if you had little doubt about the Trojans’ stretch run.
Now? There’s a lot of doubt.
Since then, it’s arguable which team has had a bigger turnaround.
The Bruins turned on the jets in Pac-12 play, starting 5-1 with wins over then-No. 15 Washington and then-No. 11 Utah before losing at always-difficult Autzen Stadium to the 10th-ranked Oregon Ducks.
Sure, UCLA stubbed its toe — and its knee, and its elbow, and its … — in a loss to Arizona on Saturday. Much like Notre Dame’s loss to Marshall, that one is unforgivable.
But it’s certainly been an impressive season for the 8-2 Bruins, who boast one of the most dynamic backfields in the country in quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and running back Zach Charbonnet.
Perhaps not as impressive as what Notre Dame has done over the last 9 weeks, though. The Irish are 7-1 in their past 8 games, with wins over ranked BYU (16 at the time), Syracuse (also 16, when they met 3 weeks later) and their crown jewel, a 35-14 win over No. 4 Clemson. Left for dead after 3 weeks, Notre Dame has climbed to No. 18 in the rankings, the highest-ranked 3-loss team in the country.
And unlike UCLA, the Irish have turned their season around under a backup quarterback, Drew Pyne, who has a completely different skill-set than injured starter Tyler Buchner. Pyne’s resurgence mirrors his team’s: After going 3-for-6 for 20 yards with a touchdown and a pick in the loss to Marshall in relief of Buchner, Buchner has thrown 17 touchdowns and 4 interceptions, with a passer rating of 151.4.
On Saturday in a 35-32 win over Navy, Pyne went 17-for-21 for 269 yards and 4 scores with 1 interception, adding 1 rushing touchdown.
This is, without qualification, an incredible pass by Drew Pyne pic.twitter.com/6oYfB8txO9
— Greg Flammang (@greg2126) November 7, 2022
Before the Trojans have to tackle the Irish, they have to get past the Bruins.
That won’t be an easy task. UCLA beat USC 62-33 last year in the Coliseum, one of the most lopsided results in the history of the rivalry, and the Bruins are expecting a full house at the Rose Bowl on Saturday night.
UCLA enters the game with the league’s best running game (240 yards per game) and ranked 2nd in total offense (504 ypg), while USC’s defense ranks 6th in the conference with 394.2 yards allowed per game. Charbonnet ranks among national leaders in yards (1,145), yards per carry (7.5) and touchdowns (13) and Thompson-Robinson has been fantastic, completing 206-of-290 passes for 2,385 yards and 20 touchdowns with just 4 interceptions and a passer rating of 160.1.
“He was impressive from the jump, he really was. You could tell he had some real ability at a young age,” Riley said. “I played him twice, the second year when we came out here, you could tell he’d really improved, and it’s clear he’s continued that trajectory. … When you watch him you see a guy who’s played a lot of ball and played a lot of ball in that system.”
DTR made it clear his feelings about playing the Trojans when speaking to the media earlier this week.
Dorian Thompson-Robinson: “Obviously, we hate those guys across town.”
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) November 14, 2022
With UCLA essentially eliminated from the CFP race but a potential berth in the Pac-12 title game on the line, Riley knows the Bruins will come into the matchup with even more energy than usual, with the potential to play spoiler.
“There’s a lot of emotion, intensity and excitement in these games,” Riley said. “That’s what makes them fun. Makes them fun for the players, makes them fun for the fans, for people across the country to watch. But you’ve got to balance that with playing great football, and that can get lost in it sometimes in the heat of the battle. You have to really balance it and you have to have poise, and you have to have the intensity, too.”
As much as the next to weeks provide a perilous path ahead for the Trojans, they also offer USC a chance to prove its mettle for the first time this season.
The Trojans do not have a single win over a ranked opponent this season; in their only game against a Top 25 team, they fell to then-No. 20 Utah, 43-42.
Now is USC’s chance to claim 2 Top-25 victories in a row before heading into the Pac-12 title game.
Plenty is on the line for the Trojans from here forward.
Even if earlier this season, it didn’t appear that way.