SAN DIEGO — It’s one of the oldest and lamest clichés in sports, usually used to justify one’s own lack of effort: “The other team wanted more.” »
It’s a meaningless phrase, until bowling season. Then it makes some sense, although perhaps the wording should be reversed: “More of them wanted it.” »
The way things have evolved in college football, thanks to the combination of the transfer portal and NFL-worthy players refusing to risk injury, rosters for any non-playoff bowl game have become a mixed bag. (Even one playoff team, Texas, asked backup quarterback Maalik Murphy to enter the portal at the end of this season. Two days before Christmas, Murphy announced he was transferring to Duke. )
But what did Lincoln Riley say about wanting to commit to guys who had a burning desire to become USC Trojans? It was obvious those who wanted to be there were there Wednesday night during the Trojans’ 42-28 Holiday Bowl victory over 15th-ranked Louisville.
And the hero was a guy willing to stay and wait his turn. This is almost unheard of in modern college football.
Miller Moss held on for three seasons, playing in 11 games but essentially serving as a trusty understudy to Kedon Slovis his first year, then to Caleb Williams the last two. He finally had his star turn at Petco Park and delivered a performance for the ages: six touchdown passes, records for both the Holiday Bowl and for a USC quarterback making his first career start . He threw for 372 yards, completed 23 of 33 passes and made only one glaring error, an interception in the red zone early in the third quarter that Louisville’s Quincy Riley caught at his own goal line and is returned to the USC 39, setting up a touchdown. which cut the Trojans’ lead to 28-21.
Do not worry. Moss had two touchdown passes left in him. He was cool, he was composed and his unit followed his example.
“He was great,” Riley said, expressing slight surprise that it took four questions in the postgame press conference before anyone asked if Moss had solidified the starting spot for next season with his performance in this match. “Shoot, he might have scared off everyone who wanted to come here anyway.”
“I’m not surprised at all with the way he played. He did what he did in practice every day, especially in the second half of this year. I knew he was confident going into it, and to see him respond and make some of the throws that he made, he was fully into the game plan and he trusted his guys. Obviously a lot of guys around him played really well and made plays, but he obviously led the charge.
But it goes beyond numbers or highlight clips, or even Moss himself.
It was basically players who wanted to be Trojans taking ownership of the situation and doing something about it. It’s the opposite of what at times seemed like a purely mercenary atmosphere around the Trojan program during Riley’s two seasons, when he brought in guys from here, there and everywhere and expected so that they are consistent.
“Over twenty guys didn’t play that game for different reasons,” Riley said afterward. “We could have gone into this game not worrying about it. This team could have gone many different paths. … It’s important for the guys who were here at the beginning of this journey, and there were a lot of good times in the first couple of years. Now they’re going to get a lot better and it’s going to get a lot more fun as it goes along, but you had to start somewhere, and a lot of guys in the locker room were part of that.
“It was important to them because the team was important to them, because USC was important to them.”
It could have been the equivalent of a trap game, for a team that began the season with national championship aspirations, but ended up losing five of its final six regular season games and being embarrassed in three of these defeats.
Instead, the Trojans finished 8-5 and with a taste for victory, and while any coach who wins a non-playoff bowl game will talk about it as a building block for the future, it is perhaps really a start from the point of view of a new attitude, a new emphasis on loyalty and commitment and all those things that tend to get pushed aside when entering the gate.
The nature of this back-and-forth game was the antithesis of what often happens this time of year, when the team that views the bowl bid as a privilege will outperform the team that views it as a chore. (For an example, see Tulane’s 46-45 win over USC in the Cotton Bowl last year.)
And the Trojans had plenty of reasons to mail it in: 20 of the 60 players listed on their depth chart opted out of this game, and Connor Morissette of USCFootball.com estimated the Trojans had 53 scholarship players as of Wednesday night.
Then again, some of those who chose not to play were on the sidelines cheering for their teammates anyway, and the most prominent among them – Caleb Williams, the one who expected to hear his name called sooner during of the NFL draft this spring — gave Moss a big hug when it was over.
Holiday Bowl final: USC 42, Louisville 28. An emotional Miller Moss hugs Caleb Williams after the game after a six-TD performance.
Williams: “F— yeah, man!!” pic.twitter.com/rEiJ5qJv6d
-Luca Evans (@bylucaevans) December 28, 2023
Moss may be the exception among his peers, but staying in one place and waiting his turn — for the final year of the Clay Helton era and two years with Riley and Williams — could still pay off.
It was “obviously a tough first year for me in college, a lot of ups and downs and adversity in that situation,” he said, recalling his first year behind Slovis and Jaxson Dart, who would ultimately be transferred.
“But I think it’s more of a tribute to the guys in this locker room, the leadership and our coaching staff that made me want to stay. I love those guys, I’ll ride for them, and I think Coach Riley has done a really, really good job developing the quarterback, obviously with the guys he’s had. I trusted him and I trust his process, so I love being around those guys, and (I’m) going to continue to do that.
He’ll probably do it as QB1, at least initially. He deserved it.
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