LAS VEGAS — In a way, the scene at Allegiant Stadium on Friday night was one USC fans might not even have dreamed of just over a year ago. Or to put it another way, they might have dreamed of it but it seemed far from possible, with the taints of the Clay Helton era having discouraged not just a team but a fanbase.
A year ago, the Trojans played in front of large sets of empty seats in the Colosseum. On Friday evening, the faithful were traveling well again. The Raiders’ home stadium was a cauldron of noise, with USC fans nearly half full, albeit outnumbered and often overrun by Utah fans, while Trojans and Utes were setting up a brawl of a Pac-12 Championship game. (After all, it’s not much harder to drive from Salt Lake City than from Los Angeles)
So Lincoln Riley brought the Trojans back to their place, didn’t he?
Not enough. Not yet.
In the end, they watched the other team celebrate, with those chances of playing for a national championship all but gone up in smoke. Utah, which had provided USC’s only regular-season blemish by a one-point margin in October, ran against them Friday night, 47-24, after leading 17-3 in the exit.
Maybe Boo Corrigan was right after all, after the chairman of the college football playoff selection committee said a few weeks ago that he and his group would like to see more from the USC defense. The Trojans gave up 533 yards, just missed some big plays and gave up some huge ones, including a 57-yard pass from Cameron Rising to Money Parks, a 60-yard TD bomb from Rising to tight end Thomas Yassmin and a 53-yard scoring run by Ja’Quinden Jackson to punctuate things in the fourth quarter.
As for presumed Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams? Maybe we shouldn’t be so cocky, although Williams obviously worked for much of Friday’s game after popping his hamstring on a 59-yard first-quarter rush. At one point, substitute Miller Moss was warming up on the sidelines just in case.
“Have you ever had an old rubber band?” Yeah, it was kind of like that,” Williams said. “And then the rest of the game, I felt it.”
But he said he fell back on a quote from Kobe Bryant, that “the game is bigger than how you feel. And so I was in my head and encouraging myself that the game was bigger than I felt. And I also had a bunch of guys looking at me to go out there and lead them to victory.
“And it didn’t end up happening…”
Voting is due to take place on Monday. Williams threw for 363 yards and three scores, but after that long run he wasn’t a threat with his legs and ended up being sacked seven times. His body of work might be enough, but so the door has been left open, possibly for TCU’s Max Duggan if he has a big day Saturday in the Big 12 Championship Game.
If Rising had played more than twice against USC, maybe he would be in the conversation too. In their first meeting, he passed for 415 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 60 and three more scores. This time, he torched USC for 310 passing yards and three touchdowns, while the Utah rushers slashed USC for 223 and three touchdowns.
So maybe the Trojans will scour the transfer portal for more defensive help this offseason. This side of the ball has been a problem all season, often obscured by the success of their plethora of attacking weaponry.
This near-miss shouldn’t mask what USC has done this season to emerge from the Helton era and rekindle support from its fan base. Just being here, being able to win not just a conference championship but also a berth in the college football playoffs, requires perspective, even if it’s another reminder that college football is absolutely ruthless.
“You’ve come as far as this team has come and this program has come in the last two months, you’re so close to winning a championship and maybe a whole lot more, and obviously not doing that is…you know, it’s a tough pill to swallow,” coach Lincoln Riley said afterwards.
“Obviously there’s a much bigger picture and perspective here of the progress that’s been made here over the past 12 months, so we’re not going to walk around like it’s a funeral. We’ve done great progress to be right now. We expected to win tonight. We didn’t. But that doesn’t change the direction and trajectory of this program.
It was a magical ride. Riley was hired Nov. 28, and one of the first things he said at his introductory press conference was that the Trojans would be playing for the championships right now. It seemed far-fetched at the time, but less so as the Trojans made full use of the transfer portal and rebuilt on the fly.
The disappointment will fade. The Trojans will go to a game of quality boules. And then the second phase of what we’ve called the rapid Riley rebuild will begin.
USC fans had been slaughtered during the Helton era, and even a reputedly demanding fan base probably wasn’t ready to start strutting just yet. Yet there they were on Friday night, with a Heisman Trophy contender and a slew of talented players who entered through the transfer portal, shaped by a coaching staff who set high expectations right away and didn’t let go. This was a major change from the Helton era.
Now the Trojans will have a bowl game ahead of them, maybe not the one they really wanted but an opportunity to respond to that loss. And the reconstruction will continue. And which parts of the list will be targeted?
“All parts of it,” he said.
“So many things are going to reset right now. And so we will get an idea over the next few weeks. … Obviously, we are going to be preparing for a very, very good game ahead. That’s going to be the main thing, but we’ll definitely take a look at next year’s roster.
“And again, it’s not like you have the whole roster at your disposal and you just pick those places. There’s going to be a lot of changes. It’s just college football these days. We understand that. And so, you know, the guys that we have in the locker room now that are with us next year, we know what our mission is, to be in that same locker room and to feel very different from what we do well at And then we’ll bring some pieces that are going to help us on this journey.
Friday was not fun. But in a sense, the journey has only just begun.
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