Commentary: Lincoln Riley and USC fail to achieve statement win as playoff hopes dim

USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks with quarterback Caleb Williams on the sideline.
USC coach Lincoln Riley speaks with quarterback Caleb Williams during the first half of a 43-42 loss to Utah on Saturday night. What was supposed to be a signature moment for Riley and Trojans turned into a gut-wrenching heartbreaker.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

This was going to be USC’s biggest win since Pete Carroll roamed the sidelines. This was going to be the Trojans’ first road victory over a ranked team in six years. This was going to be USC’s first triumph at Rice-Eccles Stadium (with fans) since 2012.

This was going to be the statement that the Trojans are already back under Lincoln Riley — tough enough to win in a rowdy atmosphere meticulously crafted to torment them.

It was all of that until USC finally gave in for the first time this season — the only first that would come to fruition on a nightmare-inducing mid-October Saturday night that removed the Trojans from the ranks of the unbeaten.


Utah 43, USC 42.

The seventh-ranked Trojans had every opportunity to leave this house of horrors victorious for the last time on their Pac-12 farewell tour, but their defense wilted again and again, giving up 415 yards passing to Utah quarterback Cameron Rising, which perfectly erased the spectacular 381 from USC quarterback Caleb Williams.

Caleb Williams had another huge game with five touchdown passes, but No. 7 USC lost 43-42 to No. 20 Utah and Cam Rising to drop to 6-1 this season.

Oct. 15, 2022

The season-high 12 penalties were partly to blame too. Riley’s Trojans, despite their early indications to the contrary Saturday, simply weren’t ready to win a game of this magnitude on the road.

“We didn’t play as clean on all three sides as we wanted to,” Riley said, “and it came down to it, they made one more play than us or we made one more mistake, however you want to look at it.”

Many USC fans, who were starting to dream about a run to the College Football Playoff, will find it hard not to harp on the many miscues — like any of the unthinkable 15 catches by Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid.


After his first defeat as USC’s leader, Riley made a point of sticking up for his players. He pointedly went after the Pac-12 game officials, which made two questionable roughing-the-passer calls that helped turn the game in the Utes’ favor.

“We had to overcome a lot tonight, and we got damn close to it,” Riley said. “This team has the inner fortitude, the culture, the desire to win, the desire to overcome anything that comes your way. ... We got enough of that to get it done.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams stands on the sideline during the team's loss to Utah
USC quarterback Caleb Williams speaks with a teammate on the sideline during the first half Saturday.
(Rick Bowmer / Associated Press)

The Trojans, 6-1 overall and 4-1 in the Pac-12, were dropped into the middle of the exact kind of pressure cooker they haven’t been able to escape for much of the last decade. Even before USC vaulted itself into the top 10 to start this season, Utah had circled this game as the one it had to have if the Utes were going to repeat as Pac-12 champions and contend for a spot in the playoff.

Proof of the extra emotional emphasis could be seen on the Utes’ helmets, which were adorned with images of two fallen teammates, Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe, each of whom died tragically within the last two years. It was no coincidence that USC was picked as the game to honor their memory and galvanize the home fans into a fervor.

Trailing 21-7 in the second quarter, Utah brought family members of Jordan and Lowe onto the field for a touching moment of applause, and the Utes promptly pulled to within 28-21 by halftime and tied the score at 28 on the opening drive of the second half. The message? They were not going to let their brothers down.

Utah is a proud program, and, coming off last season’s near-win over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl, the Utes’ preseason ranking of No. 7 felt fully reasonable. But after dropping a heartbreaker at Florida in the season opener and falling flat at UCLA last week, Utah entered Saturday desperately needing a win to save its season.

All of these factors led me to think the Trojans were going to have to play the game of their lives to remain unbeaten.

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Sept. 11, 2022

From the kickoff, they appeared up to the task, following their confident captain in Williams, who took off for 55 yards on the opening drive and never looked back. USC’s explosive skill players saw nothing but green in front of them in the early going, blasting off and taking large swaths of Utah territory. Before the Utah student section could even fill out and complete the Rice-Eccles blackout, USC led 14-0.

Watching Riley’s offense find its stride in the first half of the season was fun, but this matchup with Kyle Whittingham’s unit loomed. Could USC run the ball against the always aggressive Utes front? Could Williams avoid the big mistake with the bright lights on and a national audience tuned in to see if the Trojans were actually for real?

The answers were resounding. The Trojans ran the ball with ease, but they didn’t really need to with the way Williams was spreading the ball from boundary to boundary, feeding his fellow transfer stars Jordan Addison and Mario Williams.

Neither team played any defense, but, before being too critical: Did you happen to see the Alabama-Tennessee game? Somehow, when Southeastern Conference teams win with offense, it’s accepted. USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch would be the first to tell you his group has a long way to go.

Despite its reeling defense, USC led 35-28 as the third quarter came to a close, and a victory seemed within reach. But, no surprise, during the fourth-quarter break, Utah honored the memory of Jordan and Lowe again, asking for the crowd to come together for a “moment of loudness,” as if calling up to the heavens for help.

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Sept. 22, 2023

Sure enough, the Utes, with the help of four USC penalties, marched the field to tie the score at 35.

They took their first lead of the game with 48 seconds left, 43-42, on a gutsy two-point conversion run by Rising.

USC will feel devastated heading into its bye week, but it still has everything to play for. Beat UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Nov. 19, and the Trojans are very likely headed for the Pac-12 championship game in Las Vegas.

“A lot of our staff, we’ve been there, we know what it looks like to make a run,” Riley said. “This team has a real shot. If we handle this like I think we will, we got a real shot. I’m pissed right now. They fought their guts out. Well s—, I’m ready to go practice right now.”

A run to a Pac-12 title is certainly attainable for this USC team. The playoff talk can calm now, though. This defense is at least a year away from achieving a national championship level, and therefore so too is USC.