USC to close chaotic football season at Cal before embarking on Lincoln Riley era

Interim coach Dante Williams talks with USC receiver Tahj Washington during a game.
USC will play its last game under interim coach Dante Williams on Saturday night against California.
(Luis Sinco)

After a coaching search, two starting quarterbacks and countless blown coverages, USC will play its last game of the season Saturday at 8 p.m. against California in Berkeley. Then the Lincoln Riley era can truly begin.

The newly hired head coach said during his introductory news conference he is excited to watch his future team play. Knowing Riley will be tuning in could add intrigue to a game otherwise devoid of buzz.

With identical 4-7 records (3-5 in Pac-12 play) neither the Trojans nor Bears can qualify for a bowl game. It’s USC’s second losing season in three years. Despite getting blown out by UCLA last week, Cal is a four-point home favorite on the FS1 broadcast.


Here’s what to know about USC’s season finale:

Last hurrah

For fans eagerly looking to turn the page on one of USC’s most disappointing seasons, the end can’t come soon enough. But the Trojans have unfinished business.

“We owe the seniors to send them off the right way,” freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart said this week.

USC closes out the season in a makeup game against California, and there are plenty of potential wild-card factors in this one.

Dec. 3, 2021

Senior stalwarts such as running back Vavae Malepeai will suit up for the Trojans for a final time. Just the thought of the end of his college career nearly brought tears to Malepeai’s eyes last week as the running back reflected on getting a start during his final game at the Coliseum after he had fallen behind transfer running back Keaontay Ingram on the depth chart. The team captain ran for a career-high 99 yards last week.

“I took pride in starring in whatever role I was asked to do for the team,” Malepeai said, his voice thick with emotion. “And I loved it. Every moment of it. And I’ll soak up this last week.”

Coaching carousel


Saturday won’t just be the end for USC’s seniors, but for many of its coaches who are unlikely to be retained by Riley. The situation seems especially precarious for interim coach Donte Williams.

It wasn’t just Williams’ first experience as a head coach, but it marked a significant step up for the former cornerbacks coach who hadn’t even served as a coordinator. But his recruiting acumen and connections in his hometown of L.A. could still make him a valuable commodity.

“It was a challenge,” Williams said of lessons he learned this year. “I wanted to be the best and [post a] win-loss record that didn’t happen, but at the same time I see a lot of players and I see a lot of people that developed. ... They all learned from this, not just me. We’ve learned from this together. And we’ll continue to push forward whatever path that may be.”

Injuries mount

Wednesday’s practice was USC’s most sparsely attended of the season. Many players were absent because of injuries and academic obligations with finals approaching, Williams said. The injury bug bit the secondary especially hard with cornerbacks Chris Steele and Isaac Taylor-Stuart and safety Jaylin Smith missing practice.

Taylor-Stuart was medically cleared to return Thursday morning, but all three players seemed questionable for Saturday. Given the shortage of defensive backs, Williams said the Trojans could turn to freshman Prophet Brown or use freshman safety Caleb Bullock at multiple positions. Brown would be making his fourth appearance of the season and maintain his redshirt status. Bullock is one of USC’s leading freshmen with 40 tackles and two interceptions.


USC won 11 national titles under icons Howard Jones, John McKay, John Robinson and Pete Carroll. But the last 103 years haven’t been all wins and Roses.

Nov. 28, 2021

Quarterback Kedon Slovis, who has missed two games because of a leg injury, returned to the field for practice this week, but didn’t fully participate.