Lincoln Riley peered out over the Coliseum from atop his new gilded perch, dreaming up a future that just days before seemed no more than a pipe dream. It was Nov. 29, 2021, as USC’s new coach stood over a surreal scene, promising to turn the Trojans into contenders and the Coliseum into a mecca.
Considering the depressing depths to which USC had fallen in recent years, no reasonable soul could’ve expected at that moment to see those promises basically fulfilled in under a calendar year. But 362 days after his declaration, Riley stood on that same field for the last time in his debut season with another rival vanquished, a Pac-12 title in close reach and the College Football Playoff presumably just one win away.
What once seemed improbable, if not entirely impossiblewas now unfolding for all the nation to see, a reality even the most serious of college football skeptics could no longer deny.
“Just imagining that,” Riley said Saturday night of his vision, “these guys have brought it to life.”
USC’s coach had never wavered in his confidence throughout that yearlong turnaround, and neither had his Trojans. That much was clear with the stakes impossibly high Saturday night, as No. 6 USC dismantled No. 15 Notre Dame and its vaunted defense in a 38-27 win, its 11th of the regular season.
Not since the glory days of Pete Carroll have the Trojans won 11 of their first 12 games, a regular-season mark they last reached in 2008. USC spent the next dozen years desperately trying to capture that same magic, searching for exactly what it seems to have found this season under Riley, who Saturday tied the most wins ever for a USC coach in his inaugural campaign.
Even Carroll, who managed just six wins in his debut season, only had a few, precious shots at a national title like the Trojans now do.
“It’s been a tremendous run, but there’s obviously a lot more left out there for us,” Riley said. “So we’ve got to enjoy it but put it to bed here quickly.”
The path to the College Football Playoff isn’t quite paved with cardinal and gold just yet. But on Saturday, the dominoes fell in near-perfect succession. First, Michigan beat up Ohio State, likely ousting the Buckeyes from contention. Texas A&M cleared the way after that with an upset of Louisiana State, one of the last teams capable of playing spoiler to USC’s playoff hopes.
Those hopes were laid squarely on the shoulders of USC’s show-stopping quarterback Caleb Williams, whose performance Saturday should secure his place as a Heisman front-runner, if not send him straight to the podium in New York.
All eyes across the nation Saturday were on the Trojans quarterback, who spent most of his season eviscerating Pac-12 defenses well after many Heisman voters had dozed off.
But the sheer ease with which Williams disposed of Notre Dame, rushing for three touchdowns while throwing for another, should rouse some of those sleepy stragglers. Especially after fellow front-runner CJ Stroud, his only real competition, struggled mightily in Ohio State’s loss to Michigan.
If that weren’t enough, Williams offered his own reminder, striking the Heisman pose near USC’s sideline after a score, he said, to satisfy his teammates, who’d been clamoring for him to make a statement.
No longer was there any need to be subtle about campaigning. The school made its case clear this week, pumping out a flood of Heisman content. USC fans gave their endorsement on more than one occasion, chanting “Heisman! Heisman!” Jordan Addison, his leading receiver, took it one step further, affixing his quarterback with an imaginary crown.
“He’s the one,” Addison said.
His play was statement enough Saturday. Williams deepened his mark on the school record books once again Saturday, becoming the single-season leader in rushing as a USC quarterback. In the process, he’d gain hundreds more yards just eluding Notre Dame defenders, none of whom seemed able to stop the Trojans slippery star.
He wasn’t the only Trojan the Irish seemed entirely unable to tackle. Austin Jones continued his scorching stretch in the wake of Travis Dye’s season-ending injury, pacing USC’s offense with 154 yards in 25 carries.
“That, to me, was the game,” Riley said of Jones and USC’s ground game.
USC’s defense would do its part too, offering a stirring retort to the College Football Playoff committee chair, who noted earlier this week that the committee needed to see more from the unit.
They surely saw enough Saturday, as USC kept the touted Irish rushing attack in total check. Notre Dame ran for just 90 yards, a season low allowed by USC’s defense.
“Honestly, I got sick and tired of hearing how we were going to get pounded in the run game,” Riley said. “That didn’t happen.”
Little about USC’s season played out like many might have expected. But by Saturday, the standard beats of a Riley win were struck in their usual succession. The Trojans got off to a fast start, scoring within just four minutes. The defense came up with critical stops, forcing two timely turnovers and twice thwarting drives in the red zone. Then, as he so often does, Williams did something — or many things — one might deem extraordinary.
Even if Notre Dame’s own quarterback completed his first 15 pass attempts, remaining perfect well into the fourth quarter, it wouldn’t matter. Drew Pyne hit eight pass plays of 20-plus yards, including a 22-yard touchdown to tight end Michael Mayer in the first half that cut USC’s lead to a field goal.
But the Trojans never let their rival get closer than that. Williams dazzled, well on his way to a Heisman Trophy. The defense clamped down. The run game rolled.
And Riley, amid a stunning turnaround, walked towards the tunnel, with 11 wins under his belt and only the Pac-12 title game standing in the way of another CFP berth, knowing the promises he’d made a year ago had been kept.
“A lot of people thought I was crazy, and that’s fine,” Riley said, with a smile. “It’s been a fun run.”