In a season that could be titled as “The Humbling of the USC Trojans,” the season finale saw USC lose in embarrassing fashion 38-20 to its rival UCLA Bruins Saturday at the Coliseum.
Similar to last season’s rivalry matchup, UCLA got off to a quick 14-0 lead in the first quarter, as its defense halted the Trojans in their tracks. USC failed to make it past the 50-yard line in the first quarter for the second time this season, the first being against Arizona.
But USC would place themselves back into the game soon after. On a third and 10 from the USC 26-yard line, junior quarterback Caleb Williams heaved a bomb to a heavily covered Brendan Rice, who broke free and made the catch in stride to score the Trojans’ first points. This would prove to be one of the few times the USC crowd had something to cheer for.
With less than ten minutes left in the third quarter, and so close to getting a gutsy stop while backed up against its own endzone, the USC defense could not escape the demons that have plagued it for two years. The Trojans allowed a touchdown pass from junior quarterback Ethan Garbers to sophomore running back T.J. Harden, pushing the deficit to eleven.
On the first play of the ensuing USC drive, redshirt junior running back MarShawn Lloyd — on a play that had potential to be explosive — fumbled the ball into wide-open space surrounded by nothing but baby blue. Sophomore defensive back Jaylen Davies would pick it up and score untouched, increasing the Bruin lead to 18. The deficit would remain at 18 for much of the remainder of the game before mercifully ending in a score of 38-20.
Last season gave many fans, students and alumni alike reason to believe that USC would return to the top of the college football mountain in 2023. Williams was coming off a Heisman-winning season, the defense saw new additions such as Georgia defensive tackle Bear Alexander and Oklahoma State linebacker Mason Cobb, and the air around the area felt just a little different. But a devastating blowout loss to Notre Dame (in which Williams had his worst collegiate performance) slowed the train that seemed headed for Houston, and a subsequent loss to Utah completely derailed it.
The second half of the season has been tumultuous to say the least. After a strong 6-0 start, USC went 1-5 in its final six games. The Trojans also lost their ranked status for the first time in the Lincoln Riley era.
“I’ve clearly not done a good enough job in the second half of the season,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “Didn’t do a good enough job today getting our offense ready to go.”
Riley also spoke about the amount of close games the team has played in lately, admitting that the team was reaching its limit.
“Do I think we were a little bit worn down emotionally? … I think I can look back on it and say yes.” Riley said. “But the reality is you play better and you coach better, then you’re not in that many [close games].”
One of the team’s biggest questions all season long was brought up yet again after the game: the status of Caleb Williams for next season. When asked, Riley praised the quarterback while not speculating on his future.
“He’s done a lot like a lot of these guys up here. He took a chance on this place and took a chance on being a part of restarting this program,” Riley said. “He’s a special player, special competitor, and obviously we’ll see where it goes from here.”
The loss is the second blowout defeat the Trojans have experienced this season. Both games were against the Trojans’ bitter rivals, with the first coming against Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. The loss was the beginning of the fall of a season some previously saw ending with a new national championship trophy being added to the case in Heritage Hall.
After that, a loss to Utah, an uncomfortably close win against Berkeley and three straight losses to Washington, Oregon and now UCLA have cemented a 7-5 regular season finish. Riley says he and everyone in the program knows that this is not the result that most expected when the season began.
“Our guys are disappointed, the coaches are disappointed, I’m disappointed, our fans are disappointed, and they should be,” Riley said. “There’s no excuses. It’s below what we expect here, it’s below our standard. I’ve got to do a much better job.”
The game was also Senior Day, with one of many seniors playing in their final game in a Trojans uniform being center Justin Dedich. Dedich has been with the program for six seasons, seeing the final few years with Clay Helton coaching the team and leading the offensive line as center for the 2023 season.
“It’s very emotional. It’s been a long six years here. Obviously wanted a different outcome for this game, especially with my unit,” a somber Dedich said. “But, I’m grateful for all the times I’ve had in this place, grateful to be a part of this team, part of this program. Wouldn’t want it any other way. Love being a Trojan.”
Despite the disappointing end to the season, Riley says he and company know that the program has plenty of room to grow while striving for a highly-coveted national championship, one that USC has been starved of since 2004.
“We’ve got to keep climbing. Everyone wants the clean, smooth road to the top, and that’s for the movies,” Riley said. “The road to the top is jagged. There’s different twists and turns, especially coming from where this was. But we’ve got to stay together as a program, we’ve got to stay together as a fanbase, we’ve got to stay together as a university. These are the tough times you push through for the great things on the other side.”
While USC’s regular season is now over, most of the other FBS teams have one week remaining in their regular seasons. For now, the Trojans await to see who their next opponent will be and where they will face them when bowl season rolls around.
First appeared on www.uscannenbergmedia.com