Trojans end the season unceremoniously

LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The best way to describe the 2023 college football regular season for the USC Trojans was one full of anticipation and one that got away. 

Caleb Williams, fresh off the 2022 season in which he was awarded the Heisman Trophy as the best player in college football, returned for a second season with USC after transferring from the University of Oklahoma. 

Lincoln Riley, who coached Williams at Oklahoma, was back for his second year as the ringmaster of the USC turntables. Last season, Williams, Riley, and the Trojans made it to the Pac-12 Conference title game where they fell to the Utah Utes. 

But with Williams and Riley coming back there was a sense that the Trojans would go even further than they did last season. 

With six straight wins, the season started off as promising and looking every bit like Williams and the Trojans would be in the conversation for a spot in the College Football Playoff. The Trojans then got a reality check. 

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) hands the ball off to running back Austin Jones (6) in a 38-20 defeat to the UCLA Bruins at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Nov. 18, 2023. Photo credit: News4usonline

A road loss to Notre Dame that broke the Trojans’ unbeaten streak spiraled into USC losing five of its last six games, including being hammered by the UCLA Bruins in a 38-20 defeat at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a loss that took the sails out of Williams and the Trojans. 

“He’s done a lot, like a lot of these guys have here,” Riley said of Williams, who completed 31 of 42 passes for 384 yards in the defeat to the Bruins. “And he came here and took a chance on this place and took a chance on being a part of restarting this program and getting it going. He’s obviously been a really good player for us, a really good leader for us – like a lot of guys have in that locker room. He’s a special player, a special competitor and obviously, we’ll see where it goes from here.” 

Williams elected not to speak to the media following the loss, a USC spokeswoman said. That left Riley and the other USC players to face the music as to what happened. Riley had a difficult time finding that explanation himself.  

“Very, very disappointed, no other way to put it,” Riley said during a postgame press conference. “I told the guys in the locker room, ‘I’ve clearly not done a good enough job here in the second half of the season getting this team ready to go.’ Didn’t do a good enough job today getting our offense ready to go. The game was very similar to Notre Dame; missed opportunities. A ton of turnovers offensively, the turnovers and the fourth down stops, a turnover for a touchdown.”

During the early part and midway points of the season, Williams did a lot to make something out of nothing. He routinely produced a spectacular play or two in every contest he played. Williams was literally a one-man show for the Trojans the entire season. 

As great as that was at the beginning of the season when the Trojans were beating the daylights out of teams like Stanford, Nevada, and San Jose State, that caught up with Williams and the Trojans when they were staring down the gauntlet of Pac-12 Conference opponents as well as taking on the Fighting Irish. 

USC running back Austin Jones backs into the endzone to complete a 7-yard touchdown run against the will of UCLA linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo (2) in the fourth quarter of a 38-20 ballgame. Jones and the Trojans came up short against the Bruins, dropping their regular season finale against their crosstown rivals, 38-20. Photo credit: News4usonline

Four of the five losses that USC absorbed came courtesy of Pac-12 teams. The future of the football program is uncertain. Riley is expected to return. Williams, on the other hand, may have played his last football game as a Trojan. Williams is a redshirt junior. That means a lot of things. 

At the very least it means that Williams has options. One of those options is that Wiliams can declare to enter into the NFL Draft. Riley is more worried about continuing to build the football program.    

“I mean, we’ve already made one pretty big change,” Riley remarked. ”So you go back and look at everything, and you do it whether you’re 7-5 or whether you’re 10-2. You do that all the time; that’s a constant here. The reality is, there’s gonna be things to fix and like I’ve said a few times, you go change three plays this year, and we’ve probably won three more games. 

“And had we made those plays, there were still the issues that were there that we had to improve. So we’ve got to continue to do a better job of growing in every area. We knew this was gonna be a climb. We knew that’s what we signed up for like I’ve told you guys, and we got to keep climbing. Everybody wants the clean, smooth road to the top and that’s for the movies,” Riley added. 

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