The door technically was still cracked open, his team’s Pac-12 Conference title hopes still intact. Lincoln Riley had spent the past month reminding of that, clinging tightly to the math for comfort, even as USC’s season continued to spiral.
However far-fetched those hopes might have seemed to those who bore witness to the Trojans’ recent tailspin, it was that logic that led Riley to make the move Nov. 5 he’d avoided making for the previous year, a choice the coach hoped could salvage USC’s season. He fired his defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch, with two games remaining.
Maybe, he hoped, letting Grinch go would unlock something in USC’s defense. Or maybe, as would prove the case Saturday, it wouldn’t mean much at all.
It took all of two plays for those last shreds of hope for USC’s season to dissolve into the chilly Oregon night, even if it took a while longer for that door to officially slam shut on the Trojans in a 36-27 loss, their third in four games. The 77-yard touchdown Bo Nix tossed on his first throw Saturday was demoralizing enough before he followed it up with an 84-yard score the next time he dropped back to pass.
“Those were the margins,” Riley said. “That’s the difference.”
Even as USC’s defense stabilized somewhat in the second half, the two deep touchdowns would underscore what has now become an unimpeachable truth about this USC season. The Trojans’ issues ran far deeper than just their defensive coordinator. And now, it’s too late to solve them.
By the end of Saturday’s proceedings, even Riley seemed to finally cop to the disappointing fate of this season, his second as USC’s coach. When asked what his message would be now, after weeks spent focusing on the potential of a Pac-12 title, there was no more talk of big-picture opportunities that awaited.
Just one last game, played for pride.
“I think they will very much appreciate and cherish, one last time to play the game together,” Riley said. “And that’s what you do. Yeah, I mean, it’s the first game we’ve played here at USC where we’re out of the championship race. We don’t intend on playing any more like this.”
All season, Riley pointed to how close USC had been to reaching that goal, how narrow the margin was between winning and losing, even when an untrained eye could understand the gap between a serious contending team and this one.
By Saturday, those narrow margins no longer mattered. Only that USC’s defense had given up another 552 yards in another loss, and that there would be no leaning on the math for solace any longer.
All that was left for USC was to reason how a season that started with such high hopes had come to this.
“It’s tough,” wideout Tahj Washington said, “just living with the ride of what is versus what could have been.”
Here are three takeaways from the loss to Oregon:
Shaun Nua and Brian Odom understood, as temporary caretakers of the Trojans defense, that they wouldn’t be able to remake USC’s struggling unit overnight. But by kickoff Saturday, with USC’s defense hobbled more than it has been all season, that was basically what the two interim co-coordinators were tasked with doing.
USC’s most impactful linebacker of the past month, Eric Gentry, didn’t make the trip. Starting nickel corner Jaylin Smith sat out with an injury, and his replacement, Tre’quon Fegans, was in and out of the game because of his own injury. Two more corners who have started this season, Ceyair Wright and Jacobe Covington, missed the game, while USC’s top corner, Christian Roland-Wallace, was clearly hurting throughout after fighting through an injury this week.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever played in a game where we had as many guys banged up, as many guys coming in and out the game,” Riley said.
These weren’t exactly ideal conditions for facing the nation’s top offense. At one point, USC was left to trust freshman Makai Lemon — a receiver — with serious snaps at corner.
But the defense actually played better in the second half, when at its most hobbled. While Riley was happy to point to what USC was missing, his players opted not to.
“I don’t think that’s an excuse,” defensive end Solomon Byrd said. “I think everybody that’s here at USC can play, so I don’t think that’s an excuse.”
Caleb Williams under assault
In USC’s most harrowing moments over the last two seasons, Caleb Williams has made a habit of pirouetting his way out of problems, escaping pressure in such impressive fashion that you’d forget the issues that led to the pressure in the first place.
That aptitude for making magic had perhaps never been tested quite so thoroughly as Saturday, when USC’s offensive line spent most of the game overrun by Oregon’s front, which flushed Williams from the pocket more plays than not.
Williams was sacked four times in the first half before USC’s line settled in the second, but that number doesn’t fully capture the constant assault the quarterback faced. Williams often had just a second or two to compose himself after each snap.
It was a stark reminder of how disappointing USC’s offensive line has been this season. Despite hand-picking three transfers from the transfer portal, the Trojans never quite gelled up front. We’ll never know what Williams might have been able to do with more competent protection.
Williams still managed to complete 19 of 34 passes for 291 yards and a touchdown, a stat line that probably won’t be appreciated enough, considering the adverse circumstances. It wasn’t lost on his teammates what he’d done for them once again.
“We’re going to live by him, we’re going to die by him,” Washington said. “Whatever the case, we ride with him.”
Doomed (again) by sloppy mistakes
After nearly three quarters, a glimmer of hope emerged for USC, albeit briefly. The defense forced its first punt with 3:23 left in the third quarter and USC trailing by two possessions. Then, freshman Zachariah Branch burst loose for a 21-yard gain, finally handing the Trojans some momentum.
A few plays later, they gave it away.
On the long list of plays they’d like to have back this season, it’s hard to say where this one would rank, but its impact lingered. As Williams tried to hand the ball off on a zone read at midfield, running back Austin Jones wasn't expecting it. The ball fell to the turf, recovered immediately by Oregon. The Ducks scored five plays later.
It was precisely that sort of mistake that Riley said USC had set out to avoid against Oregon.
“We knew coming into this that we were going to have to play a little bit more clean,” Riley said.
Yet the fumble was hardly USC’s only backbreaking error. The Trojans squandered a critical fourth-down stop with an offsides penalty, and also blew their own fourth-down attempt with a delay-of-game penalty.
“We’ve missed some key moments to be able to win some of these games,” Riley said.
Saturday was certainly no different.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.