Lincoln Riley got the best kind of present two days after Christmas at the Holiday Bowl; the quarterback he was looking for to replace Caleb Williams wasn’t in the portal, he was already on the USC roster. Miller Moss, who backed up Williams during each of Riley’s two seasons in L.A. thus far, had a record-setting performance in USC’s 42-28 bowl victory. Riley had his successor before that game reached halftime.

And that altered the program’s plans to pursue an older quarterback in the portal. Riley confirmed as much on Thursday when he met with local reporters.

On Monday, Nov. 27, Kansas State quarterback Will Howard entered the transfer portal. That Saturday, Riley reportedly flew to Manhattan, Kansas, to meet with the graduate transfer. For weeks afterward, USC was viewed as the likely landing spot for Howard. So much so that 5-star 2023 signee Malachi Nelson hit the portal to look for an opportunity elsewhere.

But Moss surged during bowl prep, and when the lights came on for the Holiday Bowl, he had the best performance of his young career. Moss got the start after Williams opted out of the game and threw a Holiday Bowl-record six touchdown passes to go with 372 yards. He tied the record (four) in the first 30 minutes of the game.

“After the way Miller played in the bowl game — and not just the way he played that night but really handled those six weeks — we felt extremely confident in him and felt like there was not much of a need to really pursue anybody that was older,” Riley said Thursday. “That kind of just played itself out.”

Instead, USC turned its attention to UNLV transfer Jayden Maiava. After briefly committing to Georgia, Maiava reversed course and flipped to the Trojans on Jan. 9. With a redshirt year in 2022 and 11 starts under his belt in 2023 — to go along with 3,085 yards and 17 touchdowns — Maiava comes to Los Angeles with some experience at the collegiate level but plenty of eligibility remaining.

That became the profile after Moss lit up Petco Park. USC still needed to add a piece to its quarterback room, just not the kind of piece it initially envisioned.

“We felt like we needed youth but somebody that could also come in here and compete for the job,” Riley said. “Jayden, we thought, just fit that bill more than anybody else in the portal.”

Howard eventually committed to Ohio State, where he enters the spring as the favorite to win the job.

Most view Moss as the favorite to win the USC job. He’s had more than two years to learn, study, and grow in Riley’s system. For what it’s worth, Riley says Maiava will give him a good run.

“I was impressed with what Jayden did, played (14) games there at UNLV and did a tremendous job. I think he’s got a lot of great ball ahead of him,” Riley said. “We’re gonna let those guys duke it out. I think there are two starter-level players in that room, two guys that have kind of proved it in different ways already, and they’re both gonna get their shot here.”