USC held a 15-point lead at the Cotton Bowl before the wheels just completely fell off the wagon. Remember the Sooner Schooner falling over rounding a bend a few years back? It looked like that. USC was nearly there.

But then Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, decorated head coach Lincoln Riley, and a lethal USC offense watched a 45-30 lead with 4:30 to play completely evaporate. Tulane shredded the Trojan defense (as it had done all day) and capitalized off costly USC mistakes to win 46-45.

USC closes out Riley’s first season with an 11-3 record — what’s still the best season since 2017 — but troubling losses in each of its final two games.

Here are three takeaways from the game.

Again with this defense?

Can I just copy-paste what I wrote after the Pac-12 title game? Here’s the CliffsNotes version:

USC’s defensive problems are obvious. They’re not big enough on the defensive line to consistently stop the run. They don’t have the depth in the front seven. None of that should have been news to folks on Friday night in Las Vegas. The Trojans have mostly worked around that this season.

But Riley is going to have to decide this offseason if Alex Grinch is the answer at defensive coordinator going forward.

Maybe that seems like an overreaction to one game. But USC under Lincoln Riley is not a team constructed to play for double-digit regular-season wins and nothing more. It’s a program investing major resources to win major trophies.

Oklahoma’s defense, coordinated by Grinch, kept the Sooners from being serious national title contenders. Those OU teams had Heisman Trophy quarterbacks, too. And they played a ton of games that looked like the games USC played this season. This is not a new development for Riley; his defenses haven’t been good enough when the CFP has been on the line.

Tackling was a significant issue in the Pac-12 title game loss. Tackling was again an issue on Monday, even after nearly a month of talking about how USC wanted to be better, show it was better, and felt like it got better.

Tulane ran 52 total plays and scored 46 points.

For the game, Tulane averaged 10 yards a play. A first down every time it snapped the football.

That is unbelievable efficiency if you’re Tulane coach Willie Fritz.

If you’re Riley, though? It should give you a migraine.

There was some noise about Grinch after the Utah loss a month ago. That noise has turned to a roar in the aftermath of the Tulane loss. Program alums were on Twitter saying things like this USC defense is “the worst defense I’ve ever seen.” USC does some things with the backend of its defense that just make you scratch your head.

No one takes the deep man on a post route from Deuce Watts that goes for 59 and sets up a touchdown? With 4:30 to play and Tulane taking over down 15, the only thing you should be worried about is not getting beat deep. You want them to dink and dunk and waste clock. The only thing you can’t do is the thing USC did.

Truth be told, that two-play, 63-yard touchdown drive from Tulane to draw within eight points was the killer. It flipped everything. The possession followed an 11-play USC drive that ended in a field goal instead of a touchdown. And it only took 16 seconds. And it gave the Green Wave belief they could actually pull this out. And it made USC flinch.

That drive was followed up with a fumble on the kickoff from USC and then a safety after starting at its own 1. Tulane then happily marched down the field.

It converted a fourth-and-6 and then a fourth-and-10.

All the while, the broadcast cameras for ESPN kept panning to a helpless Caleb Williams on the USC sideline. Williams, who threw for 462 yards and five touchdowns while completing 71% of his passes, did everything he possibly could to deliver USC a win.

And the defense did everything possible to give it back to Tulane.

USC starts exactly the way it needs to

ESPN’s College GameDay broadcast a special edition of the traveling pregame show Monday morning from the site of the Rose Bowl. Which meant that minutes before ESPN switched over from Pasadena’s feed to the one inside AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, Kirk Herbstreit and company gave their picks for the day’s games.

Three of four picked Tulane to upset USC. The point spread set by Vegas was slim. The questions about USC’s motivation were aplenty.

And then the game started, and then Tulane’s offense sat on the sideline for nearly 10 minutes before getting to even touch the football.

USC opened Monday’s loss with the longest drive in Cotton Bowl history, a methodic 17-play, 75-yard march that turned the game to a crawl and bled 9:02 off the game clock. Yes, NINE minutes. Caleb Williams hit Michael Jackson III for a 9-yard score to cap the drive with a touchdown.

Tulane took over and punted five plays later.

Then it was a 12-play, 95-yard touchdown march engineered by Williams to give USC a 14-point lead. This drive took another five minutes off the clock and moved us into the second quarter.

USC scored touchdowns on four of its five first-half possessions. When it comes to starts, this was about as good as it could get and it was absolutely essential.

Tulane hit back immediately after falling down 14-0. Running back Tyjae Spears got rolling. Quarterback Michael Pratt rumbled. The Green Wave were able to tie it at 14 in quick succession doing exactly what USC fans feared — running it right at a leaky defense.

And that… well, that continued throughout.

The Trojans needed the offense to start hot. They needed that cushion. The problems on the defensive side of the ball are all still there, but unlike the last time out, Williams was able to move around and he turned in an exceptional performance — particularly on third down. USC did to Tulane what Tulane probably wanted to do to USC — played keep-away.

Tulane would have done it to keep that Trojan offense off the field. USC did it to save us all from having to watch more of that Trojan defense than absolutely necessary.

A new star emerges at wideout

Of course, that kind of gameplan doesn’t work if you can’t convert on third down. That was not a problem for the Trojan offense.

USC went 11-for-15 on third down, including 9-for-10 on money downs in the first half. Williams was phenomenal throughout. He hit 12 of his 14 passes on third for 176 yards. He had a pair of ridiculous connects with wideout Brenden Rice on third-and-longs.

The first converted a third-and-22 and set the Trojans up inside the 5.

The other came later in the third and ended with a 19-yard score to Rice.

Rice was wonderful. The son of a man who can be argued as the best wide receiver of all time, Rice does smart receiver things. That first clip you see him aggressively come back to get the football. That second clip you see the footwork. The third-year wideout had a game-high six catches for a career-high 174 yards and two touchdowns.

He ends his first season at USC with 611 receiving yards and four touchdowns. The Trojans are losing Jordan Addison this offseason, so Williams will need a new go-to man when the pressure turns up. Rice has all the tools to be exactly that.