USC falls again; Riley says the team is affected by the expectations

Paolo UghettiESPNOctober 22, 2023, 2:30 a.m. ET4 minutes of reading

LOS ANGELES — The sights and sounds were all too familiar for USC.

A relaxed Caleb Williams waved gently to the Coliseum fans who couldn’t hide their disappointment. A crowd of Utah players taunted the home crowd as they ran off the field in victory. And Trojans coach Lincoln Riley sat alone at the podium trying to explain how, for the third time in three games, Utah beat USC again — this time with a field goal in the final seconds that gave the Utes a 36-34 win.

“Two tough losses in a row and obviously none of us scripted that, but you can’t script it. This is college football,” Riley said. “It comes down to little things here and there and we haven’t played clean enough here the last few weeks to take advantage of that.”

Like him after the Trojans fell to Notre Dame last week, Riley defended his team’s fight and chalked up the Utah loss to a combination of mistakes and shortcomings by every USC unit against a tough opponent.

But the Utes proved to be more than a tough matchup. They became a particularly impossible mystery for Riley & Co. to solve. – an unofficial marker of how much work USC still has to do to become what it hopes to be.

On Saturday, despite having far less talent on the field than USC and being without starting quarterback Cameron Rising, the Utes’ identity and collective strength were once again too much for the Trojans to handle. Coach Kyle Whittingham’s squad didn’t do a single thing impressive, instead wearing down USC with a steady offense and its usual stout defense.

USC, on the other hand, fell into some familiar traps. Even after making changes to the offensive line after the six-sack loss to Notre Dame — moving Mason Murphy to right guard and Jarrett Kingston to right tackle while benching Florida transfer Michael Tarquin — the line may have looked improved, but the offense looked almost as rhythmless as South Bend, Indiana.

Williams threw for just 256 yards and no touchdowns after starting the season with 23 touchdowns in seven games. While Utah’s Sione Vaki collected 217 all-purpose yards by himself, USC managed just 145 rushing yards on the night. The Utes, who had the 55th-ranked offense in SP+ entering the game, outgained the Trojans’ third-ranked offense by 81 yards and held the ball nearly 10 minutes longer than USC.

Defensively, the Trojans fell back into bad habits at inopportune times, missing key tackles and allowing players like Vackey and quarterback Bryson Barnes to make big plays. Barnes’ 23-yard rush with less than a minute left in the game was the kick that set up the game-winning field goal.

Riley, who did not make any players available to the media after the loss, said he felt last year’s team, which went 11-1 in the regular season, may have overachieved. He said this year’s team may have been affected by the expectations that followed.

“Everyone expects you to be good. Everyone expects you to have a championship-caliber team,” Riley said. “And when you’re constantly trying to live up to those expectations, you can kind of give up what maybe put you there in that position in the first place.”

When asked about those expectations and whether USC fell short of them this season, Riley said the team had to “fight to keep things on our terms.”

“We don’t come in every week talking about winning a national championship, going to the playoffs,” Riley said. “I don’t know where this narrative begins.

“If you let outside parties set expectations, you’re always going to be matched against that.”

As he did after the two close wins and losses, Riley reiterated that USC still has a lot to play for. While its College Football Playoff chances may have evaporated after Saturday’s loss, the Trojans still have just one conference loss, making a trip back to the Pac-12 title game possible.

But it will take some work for USC to do that, with games against Oregon, Washington and UCLA coming up and a second conference loss likely to seal its fate.

“It’s not coaching language; I’m not trying to create something that’s not there,” Riley said. “There is a real opportunity for this team right now and this team can do it. Now we have to play better. We have to play cleaner; we have to train better.”

If Riley’s debut season was a showcase of USC’s potential, the second year was a dose of reality that it will indeed take some time and growing effort to reach that potential. Riley can defy outside expectations and hope his players ignore them, but in the same breath admit they won’t go away.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Riley said. “We signed up to do this thing for a long time.”

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