LOS ANGELES — USC’s regular season is over after UCLA handed the Trojans an embarrassing and humiliating loss, 38-20, in the latest edition of the crosstown rivalry.
There will be a bowl game but it won’t change anything in regard to how this season is viewed. So with the 2023 regular season in the books, let’s get to some final thoughts on the program’s stunning fall from grace over the second half of the year.
1. In this reporter’s opinion, USC’s 1-5 finish over the final six games generates similar thoughts as the ending of last season’s Cotton Bowl. That being: What the hell just happened?
The main difference between the two is this collapse was stretched out over nine games — the Trojans displayed several troubling flaws weeks before they lost — and not four and a half minutes like the loss to Tulane.
Other than Caleb Williams, who was great this season but made more critical mistakes than last year, it’s hard to pinpoint many positives from this season.
The running game faltered against most good defenses. The receivers didn’t make as many plays as they did a year ago. The offensive line played worse than a year ago. The run defense was every bit as bad as it was last season and the pass defense was worse.
Punting and punt return both improved but not enough to lift a subpar special teams unit.
Like the stunning collapse against Tulane, all three phases of the game and coaching — starting with Lincoln Riley — contributed to this mess of a season. The record stands at 7-5 which is bad enough considering people viewed this team as a threat for the College Football Playoff and the Pac-12 championship in the preseason. If Jedd Fisch elected to go for two in the first overtime of the Arizona game or if Cal didn’t self-destruct in the fourth quarter, USC might be 5-7 right now.
Simply put, Riley and the rest of the staff did a shockingly poor job with this year’s team — which is the most disappointing in college football. And the program enters the offseason with a ton of question marks.
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2. If you were to ask me to identify players who definitely improved from 2022 to 2023, I’d point to Tahj Washington (52 catches, 963 yards, six TD receptions), who was probably the most underappreciated player on the roster over the past two years, and Brenden Rice (45 catches, 791 yards, 12 TD receptions).
Other than that though, I might have a hard time getting to five players, which is very alarming. If a program isn’t recruiting at an elite level — and USC isn’t — then it has to develop the players it does have.
There wasn’t much of that this season, which again, falls on the staff. If it’s not a development issue, it’s an evaluation issue.
USC brought in several highly-touted transfers last offseason. Kyon Barrs, Bear Alexander, Anthony Lucas and Jack Sullivan were supposed to solidify the Trojans’ defensive front. Alexander was a hit and finished with 5.5 tackles for loss — but, honestly, was more disruptive than that.
Lucas, Sullivan and Barrs combined for 5.5 TFLs for the whole season. Against UCLA, Barrs played 14 snaps and Lucas played just two. Sullivan played 29 after he fell out of the rotation completely at the midway point of the year.
Michael Tarquin was another highly-touted transfer and opened the season as the starter at right tackle but was benched midway through the season. There were three transfers who started on the offensive line (Tarquin, Jarrett Kingston and Emmanuel Pregnon) but the unit didn’t gel this season.
Dorian Singer finished second in the Pac-12 in receiving at Arizona last season with 1,105 yards on 66 receptions. He caught just 23 passes for 276 yards this season and never really seemed in sync with the offense.
When it comes to roster building, USC has to improve everywhere: evaluation, recruiting and development.
3. The receiver position might have been the biggest mystery of the season. The group missed Jordan Addison but a lot of these players made plays when Addison had to miss a good chunk of games late last season. They made plays in the Cotton Bowl when Addison opted out.
But the group struggled to get open this season and it didn’t seem like they were schemed open as often as they were in 2022.
Singer has proven to be a good player but for some reason just didn’t fit in the offense this season. It was a lost season for Mario Wiliams, who didn’t make nearly the same impact he did last season. Williams struggled with drops and caught 29 passes for 305 yards after he caught 40 for 631 yards while missing a few games last year.
True freshman Zachariah Branch and Duce Robinson both showed flashes this season and the future is bright, but both clearly need to make some progress this offseason.
Kyron Hudson had limited opportunities. Michael Jackson III was banged up toward the end of the year. Makai Lemon had to move to corner because of depth issues in the secondary.
This group will be interesting to track over the next few weeks and months. USC had some departures from the room last offseason. We’ll see if it does this season.
4. It’s really difficult to say USC needs this or USC needs that in the portal because they might need so much.
It might need a quarterback if/when Caleb Williams declares for the draft. It might lose its top two running backs so it needs help there. Does it try to add an impact receiver like it’s done the past two offseasons? It probably needs help at center and tackle too.
Where will USC turn to at QB if Saturday is Caleb Williams’ last game?
A new defensive coordinator will probably want some more bodies on the defensive line. Linebacker has to get better. So do the defensive backs.
And kicker, too.
The Trojans need to emphasize the line of scrimmage as they prepare for life in the Big Ten but they need more depth and talent at a lot of other position groups also.
5. It’s hard to overstate how impressive UCLA’s defense was on Saturday. The Bruins tackled well, were strong against the run and were just fundamentally sound.
If you’re a USC fan, you have to hope whoever the next defensive coordinator is could have the same sort of impact on the Trojans’ defense. But hiring a new defensive coordinator is only the beginning of the work needed on that side of the ball.
USC has to practice differently because whatever it’s been doing the past two years clearly hasn’t worked. It has to change the mindset on that side of the ball and it has to be more physical defensively.
Can a new DC change all of that? We’ll see.
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6. Chip Kelly isn’t a perfect coach. Far from it. He held onto an embattled defensive coordinator too long before as well. He could definitely put more effort into the recruiting trail. Could have prepared for the program’s life after Dorian Thompson-Robinson better too.
But UCLA has an identity. It wants to run the ball and everything flows off that. It’s found something on the defensive side of the ball this season, too.
Between the Bruins and Trojans, UCLA might be better prepared for Year 1 in the Big Ten than USC based on how it looks physically on the line of scrimmage and its identity — the Bruins have no problem getting physical. They’ve gone toe-to-toe with Utah in that department for the past two seasons.
If USC is going to turn things around, Riley has to establish the program’s identity and let that be its guiding light or North Star. If this past season showed anything, it’s that USC is in desperate need of some sort of identity — or a new one that’s different from all the negative ones that have been thrown upon it over the past two months.
(Top photo: Jason Parkhurst / USA Today)