EUGENE, Ore. — What, exactly, does Lincoln Riley want USC to be?
Well, we’re going to find out soon because Saturday’s 36-27 loss to fifth-ranked Oregon, which knocked the Trojans out of Pac-12 title contention, put on display just how far the program has to go.
It was the sort of loss in a sort of season that has to make a coach reflect and think about which direction he wants his program to go.
Riley’s not used to this. The first six seasons of his head coaching career have been a parade of 10-win seasons, conference title games, Heisman Trophy winners, high-profile bowls and College Football Playoff appearances — or near misses.
There never has been a real struggle there. Riley never has lost more than three games in a season. Now he has lost four times in the past five weeks. USC (7-4, 5-3 Pac-12) entered the season with CFP hopes and was the Pac-12 favorite. The Trojans will play against UCLA next week with nothing more than pride on the line. This is a different sort of low — and not that there wasn’t pressure at Oklahoma — under a different sort of microscope in Los Angeles.
Riley and the program aspire for national championships, and they’ll have to close the gap on Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State to win those.
But put that to the side for the moment. How is this program going to go about closing the gap with Oregon?
This game played out as one would expect from a contest between teams where one program has recruited at a higher level than the other for several recruiting cycles. There have been cycles during which USC and Oregon’s classes have been fairly close in the rankings. But the Ducks have recruited better where the games are won and at the positions that matter: in the trenches.
That was apparent the last time these two teams met — the 2020 Pac-12 title game — and it’s not any different now in Riley’s second season.
Oregon’s wide receivers are better than USC’s. Its defensive backs are better. Linebackers, running backs, you name it. USC has Caleb Williams, but Oregon is better pretty much everywhere else.
“They’re probably a deeper roster than us right now. They’re also a much healthier roster than we are right now too,” Riley said. “Looking big picture, we’ve got to continue to make gains. We know that. Continue to address certain areas within the program and within the roster that have to get better. We realize that.”
It’s difficult to pinpoint what USC, as a program, does better than Oregon right now. Oregon plays defense better. Its offense is more balanced. And the Ducks have coached better than the Trojans this season.
USC did lose by just nine points with a banged-up defense a few days after it fired its defensive coordinator. But it’s hard to put much stock into that because Oregon didn’t even play that well. The Ducks committed 13 penalties for 120 yards and were sloppy, and it still didn’t feel like they were threatened at any point in the second half.
What do USC and Lincoln Riley need from the Trojans’ next defensive coordinator?
Of course, NIL plays a significant role in building a better roster and recruiting, and the Ducks benefit greatly from it. That’ll always be talked about when discussing these two teams. But who are the elite recruiters on USC’s coaching staff outside of Riley for offensive skill players and Donte Williams for defensive backs?
Oregon’s staff sleeps, eats and breathes recruiting and is simply better at it than USC’s staff. Riley will have to evaluate that dilemma intensely this offseason, and it should be a significant factor in his defensive coordinator search because there’s a good chance the Trojans are going to have to beat Dan Lanning and Tosh Lupoi for any and every major defensive recruit they covet.
Yes, it should be acknowledged that USC’s administration is probably conservative with NIL, but it also seems like the program’s philosophy has been to utilize NIL more for transfers than high school recruits. Sometimes those transfers work out like Jordan Addison and Bear Alexander, and sometimes they don’t like this past offseason’s additions on both sides of the line (outside of Alexander).
USC tried to make an effort to upgrade its defensive talent through the portal this offseason, but Oregon stunned that unit when Bo Nix tossed a 77-yard touchdown pass to Tez Johnson on the Ducks’ second play from scrimmage. On the very next drive, Nix hit Troy Franklin for an 84-yard touchdown.
Nix was 2-for-2 passing with 161 yards and two scores early on. Nix had the time to make throws and the receivers who could make plays. He finished with 412 yards passing and four touchdowns.
USC’s defense couldn’t generate any real pressure. Its defensive backs were not athletic enough to cover Oregon’s wideouts, and the defensive line was not strong enough against the run. Ducks running back Bucky Irving rushed for 118 yards and a score and averaged 6.2 yards per carry.
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Riley finally made the much-needed decision to move on from former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch last week. But he’ll have to get serious about playing defense this offseason. And that aforementioned search will go a long way in determining how the rest of Riley’s tenure goes.
The Trojans need better coaching on that side of the ball but also need better players, more focus, better habits and everything else you could think of.
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While the defense ultimately will determine how Riley’s tenure will go, he has issues to address on offense as well. Big point totals against mediocre Cal and Washington defenses masked the Trojans’ problems on offense.
The offensive line isn’t good enough. Williams was sacked three times on Saturday night, and the Ducks harassed him far more than that stat sheet shows. Williams was running for his life for most of the game.
And when he had time, his receivers weren’t getting open. Those two units — the receivers and the line — probably have been USC’s most disappointing this season, so they have to get better too. Riley will start a good quarterback next season, but it’s going to be difficult to find someone who can cancel out pressure and buy time for his receivers like Williams.
All of these problems have USC in the situation it faces right now where it’s not in serious title contention after entering the season with sky-high expectations. The Trojans are in this spot 12 months after being 11-1 and on the doorstep of a CFP bid. Since Riley’s 11-1 start with the program, USC has gone 7-6.
It’s far from accomplishing its national championship hopes. It still doesn’t control the West Coast, and even though UCLA lost to Arizona State on Saturday, USC is probably going to have a serious fight on its hands for bragging rights in its own city next week.
“It’s the first game we’ve played here at USC where you’re out of the championship race,” Riley said. “We don’t intend on playing many more like this.”
If that’s going to be true, Riley and the program’s actions will have to speak louder than their words this offseason.
(Top photo of Caleb Williams: Brandon Sloter / Image Of Sport / Getty Images)