PASADENA, Calif. — All season long, USC head coach Lincoln Riley has made it his mission — after a win, a loss, a practice — to mention where USC was just a year ago compared to now.
Even after USC dropped its first game to Utah by a point on the road, Riley mentioned how far the program had come in a short amount of time. It had taken them just five games to surpass last season’s four-game total. That night in Salt Lake City, Riley emphasized another point: Despite the loss, all of the Trojans’ goals would be achievable if they kept winning.
One of those goals was achieved on Saturday. A season after losing at home to rivals UCLA by nearly 30 points, USC overtook the Bruins in a back-and-forth thriller that clinched the Trojans’ ticket to the Pac-12 championship in Year 1 of the Riley era and them kept college football playoff hopes alive.
“Iconic game,” Riley said. “Whether you’re a USC fan or a UCLA fan, you won’t forget nights like this.”
The first ranked game between the two teams since 2015 delivered at almost every level. After UCLA raced to a 14-0 lead and led 21-20 at halftime, the game became a ping-pong match with touchdowns in the second half. Whatever quarterback Caleb Williams could do on one side, Dorian Thompson-Robinson would respond forcefully on the other. Both threw interceptions — three plus a fumble for Thompson-Robinson, one for Williams — but tried to erase their mistakes with blinding drives, Houdini-esque scrambling and pinpoint touchdown shots.
But the dangerous affair ended promptly with a defensive game. Driving down the field to try to tie or win the game with less than two minutes left, Thompson-Robinson was intercepted by sophomore Korey Foreman.
“I came into this game expecting a dog fight,” Williams said. “The game is never over in these big games.”
The teams combined for 93 points, five turnovers and more than 1,000 yards of offense, and no player was responsible for more of those yards and scores than Williams, who ranged for a career-high 470 passing yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 33 yards and a touchdown .
“He’s been one of the best players in the country this year,” Riley said of Williams.
USC offensive lineman Brett Neilon added, “He’s so competitive and so confident but not cocky. He’s just an A-Plus guy.”
Earlier this week, Williams said he wanted to treat the matchup with UCLA like another game. There was no added motivation or animosity towards the Bruins. But after the game, the joy shown by the players, coaches and support staff spoke of something else that USC had been lacking in recent years: success, opponent or not.
It was fitting, then, that Saturday’s victory celebration took place in the same South End zone where USC last celebrated its best moment before this one: the 2017 Rose Bowl win over Penn State.
Saturday’s win confirmed that USC’s offense is one of the most explosive in the country and that Williams is a Heisman candidate, if not the frontrunner. The Trojans’ defense was inconsistent, but also timely when it came to forcing turnovers and making stops.
The game was also a show of USC’s confidence. After losing two points early in the game after leaving points on the board, there was, as Riley put it, no flinching.
“You can’t write the script first,” Riley said. “You just have to be ready to answer.”
After a disappointing loss in Salt Lake City, Riley was almost too confident USC would react from the low point of its season. As USC players took to the field at the end of Saturday’s game, the sense of accomplishment went beyond defeating their rivals. It was also about the fact that within a year the Trojans had managed to assemble a team with a new coaching staff, a bevy of transfers from different corners of the country and many players who had been at USC for several years into a well-rehearsed, successful team that can compete for conference titles.
Among the things USC accomplished on Saturday was keeping a West Coast team in the playoff chase. There’s still work to be done — USC needs to beat a rising Notre Dame and win the Pac-12 championship next week — but for a conference and a region that hasn’t made the top four as often as its peers, Riley’s revival from USC projects a brighter future that has already paid off.
“When we think back to what we’ve accomplished here, the main thing we wanted to do was come together,” said linebacker Shane Lee, who joined from Alabama. “That’s why we’re here, to play for championships and to have success.”
Both Williams, still adjusting to wearing cardinal and gold or leading the band after a win, and players like fifth-year senior lineman Andrew Vorhees, who has seen all the ups and downs of recent years, basked in the post-game win as they hugged teammates and high-fived USC fans who didn’t want to leave. Athletic director Mike Bohn hugged Riley, who then watched as the celebration was removed from the crowd and took it all in.
“College football is alive and well on the West Coast and here in LA,” Riley said after the game, praising the atmosphere in front of a sell-out crowd of more than 70,000 at the Rose Bowl. “It should be like this every week.”