Late last summer, this columnist asked Lincoln Riley for his expectations for this season.
“To win the championship,” he said.
He was crazy. He was cocky. He was right.
Unbelievably, after 11 games, Riley’s USC football team is in position to fulfill the wildest of expectations in the most extravagant of ways.
They can win a Pac-12 championship. They can win a national championship. Somewhat incredibly, actually living up to the histrionics surrounding the offseason hiring of Riley, they can make history.
Less than a year after a 4-8 debacle, the Trojans are riding a 10-1 dream after an unexpectedly powerful 48-45 defeat of UCLA on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl.
Unexpectedly, at least in this space, because the pick was the Bruins.
Powerful, because, boy, was I wrong.
“Found a way, obviously,” Riley said.
The Bruins were predicted to have the better quarterback. They did not. The Trojans’ Caleb Williams was Heisman-good. Seriously, send Williams to New York City after he racked up 503 total yards and three total touchdowns while going 32 of 43 through the chilly air for 470 yards.
Yes, 503 yards is the highest total individual output in this series’ 92-game history. And, yes, once Williams lands in New York, after this nationally televised performance, he should be the Heisman favorite.
“He’s been on the best players in the country this year,” Riley said of his star. “He’s been that all year.”
Meanwhile, although UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson was spectacularly tough while playing with an injured hand, he committed four turnovers that led to 10 points and the unofficial end of the game.
The Bruins were also predicted to have the better of two bad defenses, but the Trojans held UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet to his fewest yards this season (95) while simply steamrolled the Bruins in total yardage, 649-513.
Finally, the Bruins were predicted to have an obvious home-field advantage, but USC fans filled up an end zone and howled through the night as their team made one inspirational play after another.
The Trojans trailed 14-0 early. They fought back to take the lead in the third quarter.
They then traded body blows with UCLA throughout the rest of the game, score after score, highlight after highlight, the Trojans staggered but never dropped, the Bruins charging and charging but ultimately stopped.
“Not even thinking about flinching,” Riley said.
The final moment of inspiration occurred in the waning minutes of the game when forgotten former top recruit Korey Foreman intercepted Thompson-Robinson around midfield to clinch the victory.
“Big-time for Korey to be the guy,” Riley said. “I mean, you just never know when it’s going to be your moment. And he [was] ready.”
So too were the Trojans’ fans, who chanted, “We Are … SC!” as their team engaged in their trademark celebration of rushing to the marching band and dancing to the music.
“College football on the West Coast, here in L.A., is alive and well,” Riley said. “People who were in that stadium tonight, where you were a UCLA fans, whether you were a USC fan, they won’t forget nights like that. What an unbelievable experience.”
Unbelievably, the championship path for the seventh-ranked Trojans is now clear. If USC beats Notre Dame next week and then wins the Pac-12 championship game Dec. 2 in Las Vegas, it will almost certainly be selected for the College Football Playoff’s final four, with the championship to be played Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium.
So, yeah, in avenging a 62-33 drubbing by the Bruins last season, the Trojans actually set themselves up to possibly playing for the national title.
“We didn’t come here to play for second, we are not wired that way,” Riley said on that late-summer day. “We came here competitively to win championships, win them now and to win them for a long time.”
Could that time begin now? At the start of Saturday’s game, it didn’t seem like it. USC quickly fell behind 14-0 in front of a roaring crowd that kept getting louder.
On USC’s first possession, the Trojans drove 54 yards on 10 plays, but it was all for nothing when Williams was stuffed on fourth and one on the UCLA 21-yard line.
After the Trojans’ defense held the Bruins, the offense took control again and drove 41 yards in five plays to set up Denis Lynch for a 32-yard field-goal attempt. But he missed wide left, ruining the second of two great early Trojans opportunities before UCLA had scored a point.
After UCLA found its offense and drove 80 yards downfield to score on a Thompson-Robinson sneak, USC blew it again, when Williams committed only his third interception of the season, a poor pass that was picked off at midfield by Kain Madrano.
On the next play, Thompson-Robinson found Michael Ezeike wide open down the right sideline for a 30-yard touchdown pass and an eventual 14-0 UCLA lead.
Blowout happening? Not quite. Not with Williams in the huddle.
“Swings are going to happen, you have to be prepared for them,” Williams said. “You have to keep fighting. You have to keep fighting.”
USC indeed fought back to score on drives of 72,75 and 79 yards. Williams rushed for six yards for one touchdown, Austin Jones ran eight yards for another touchdown, and Lynch kicked a 44-yard field goal.
Yeah, that Austin Jones. In his first game replacing Travis Dye, who is out for the season with a knee injury, Jones gained 120 yards and scored two touchdowns while sometimes dragging half of Westwood with him.
“There’s not one person in the locker room surprised about the way he plays, he’s worked like that,” Riley said. “Another great example of the unselfishness of this team.”
The initial USC counterpunch was enough to keep the Trojans close against a UCLA offense that seemed equally unstoppable, and then USC had a great chance to take the lead at the end of the first half when Mekhi Blackmon stepped in front of a Thompson-Robinson pass and returned it to the USC 35-yard line in the final minutes.
But on third down deep in Bruins territory, Brenden Rice dropped a pass, then Lynch missed a 33-yard field goal wide left, his second miss of the night.
But the Trojans weren’t done. On the ensuing UCLA drive, Thompson-Robinson had his second interception in two possessions, this one picked out of mid-air by a leaping Shane Lee. Three plays later, Lynch was short on a 49-yard field goal, but UCLA’s Chip Kelly had called a timeout, so they ran the play again, and this time Lynch nailed it, ending the half with UCLA leading 21-20.
The Trojans trailed by a point, but the momentum was all theirs.
“Trying to lead, keep my guys’ heads up, because the game is never over in big games,” Williams said.
The Bruins reeled off an 11-play drive to start the third quarter, but USC eventually held, and the Bruins had to settle for a 46-yard field goal by Nicholas Barr-Mira to give them a 24-20 lead.
USC took over and, four plays later, Williams found Jordan Addison all alone down the right sideline for a 35-yard touchdown pass to give the Trojans their first lead at 27-24 with 8:50 left in the third quarter.
They never trailed again.
And, in the end, it turns out they didn’t react too well to UCLA’s pregame chirping, particularly the rivalry stoking by Thompson-Robinson.
“We heard all their stuff,” Trojans center Brett Neilon said. “You know, you can tell those teddy bears we beat them. So they can say whatever they want, do whatever they want, but we run L.A., so I’m happy.”
And, amazingly enough, now the real fun begins.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.