Lincoln Riley said before the season the difference between his first USC squad — which went 11-3 and played in the Pac-12 Championship Came — and his second USC team was the presence of more good players and less bad players.

The more talented Trojans finished their season 7-5 last Saturday. A 38-20 loss to UCLA at the Coliseum capped a six-game closing stretch that included five losses. Riley said at several points throughout the season he felt like the 2022 Trojans overachieved. He said this year’s group let the weight of expectations affect them.

Riley sat down with The Athletic’s Antonio Morales for an exclusive and wide-ranging interview earlier this week. Morales asked Riley about his comment back in August that this USC team has “less bad players” and asked why USC struggled so much then.

“I think we, one, obvious to say we never got our footing defensively — in any way, shape or form. It didn’t happen. We didn’t have the momentum,” Riley told Morales. He mentioned the Notre Dame game where the Irish scored 48 points but only had 251 yards of offense. “Even when we did some good things (defensively), the offense was turning it over. The team just never quite clicked in the second half of the season.”

Riley also felt the schedule did not help.

“I think fair to say Year 1 we overachieved with what we had. Certainly fair to say Year 2 we didn’t reach our potential. I think there’s still holes,” Riley told Morales. “I think the schedule in hindsight — you wish would’ve maybe lined up a little better. It was a tough schedule to begin with but on top of it, the way it unfolded with nine straight was challenging.”

USC opened the season in Week 0 against San Jose State and then had an early bye week in mid-September. From Sept. 23 on, the Trojans played every week.

After USC lost Caleb Williams in the Pac-12 Championship Game loss to Utah last season, Riley wanted an off week heading into the title game this season. USC expected to make a return trip, and it hoped a bye week beforehand would help the team walk into Allegiant Stadium healthier.

Instead, USC wilted down the stretch of the year — with games against four ranked opponents in five weeks — and saw its title chances wiped away in Eugene on Nov. 11.

“At the end of the day, we did not play consistently good enough to separate from enough people,” Riley told Morales. “Consequently, we put ourselves in a lot of really tight games against really good competition. No matter how agonizingly close it was, we did not make some of the winning plays at the end of games that we made more of the previous year. We lost a couple that were close. I do think the psyche of the team was a little different and again I think the expectations for this team internally were through the roof, and I feel like once we lost a couple of those, we handled it like a team that hasn’t been there before, honestly. We handled it like a team and a program that hasn’t been on that stage or really truly hasn’t had those expectations in a while. Part of that’s the history of the last several years, part of that is how the roster was constructed.”

You can read the rest of Riley’s interview with Morales for The Athletic here.