Lincoln Riley gets first look at USC as Trojans try to keep focus

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LOS ANGELES — Southern California is playing for two coaches this week.

There is Lincoln Riley, the splashy new hire tasked with restoring the Trojans atop their historic perch at the pinnacle of West Coast college football, and Donte Williams, the interim coach asked to shepherd this year’s team through a lost season after the September firing of Clay Helton. Williams’ stint will come to an end on the road against California on Saturday night.

While USC players insist they are focused on the game and ending a dire campaign with a win and good feelings, it was hard not to wonder if a spirited Tuesday practice was the result of having Riley and members of his 2022 coaching staff in attendance.

“I think the guys know what’s at stake,” sophomore wide receiver Gary Bryant Jr. said. “Obviously going into this week, I think that they know there’s a change in the future, but everybody’s locked into now. Like I said earlier, everybody’s focused on Cal, what we can do now.”

USC (4-7) cannot qualify for a bowl after a last-minute loss to No. 12 BYU on Saturday, but Riley will still get a chance to evaluate the roster he is inheriting in meetings, practices, and live competition because of a COVID-19 outbreak among the Golden Bears that forced that game to be postponed from Nov. 13 to this week, one day after the Pac-12 champion is decided in Las Vegas.

Riley watched practice alongside incoming defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, wide receivers coach Dennis Simmons and strength coach Bennie Wylie. They got a look at everyone from freshman quarterback Jaxson Dart to redshirt senior defensive lineman Nick Figueroa, who is eligible to play next season and has said he plans to return.

The next few days could give Riley a better sense of what players he can build around and what position groups will need to be upgraded on signing day and through the transfer portal.

“Like I say, every day is a job interview,” Williams said.

That’s especially true for Williams, who has been central to USC’s efforts to bring in the best high school players after the program struggled in recruiting late in Helton’s tenure. Even with the support of recruits committed to the Trojans and admirers within the athletic department, there are no guarantees Williams will remain on staff.

Williams said he has yet to discuss his future with Riley, Grinch, athletic director Mike Bohn or anyone else.

“USC knows only up from here,” Williams said. “I know they’re gonna recruit the right way, I know they’re gonna play games the right way, and we’ll see where all that’s going. But for right now, our main focus is about Cal.”

Figueroa said it was easy to get caught up in the speculation over the past few months about who would be the next Trojans coach, with everyone from Iowa State’s Matt Campbell to Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers bandied about in the absence of concrete information from the search by Bohn and his chief of staff, Brandon Sosna.

When it became a possibility, and then reality, on Sunday that Riley would join USC after five seasons at Oklahoma, Figueroa was trying to process the news just like everyone else.

“I think everyone was pretty, like, shocked and excited,” he said. “The entire, like, Twitter world, we kind of saw that blow up before our eyes. And there’s a lot of positive optimism around our program. And I think we just want to keep that rolling into the next game and kind of use that to build momentum going into the next season, whether it be in recruiting or within our own team.”

Riley spent time on the phone during practice. Perhaps not coincidentally, touted 2023 quarterback prospect Malachi Nelson announced his commitment to USC later in the afternoon. Nelson, who attends Los Alamitos High School in Orange County, had been committed to Oklahoma before Riley’s departure.

“I think there’s a lot of potential here,” Figueroa said. “And it’s a match that starts a fire.”

No. 3 TCU loses 31-28 in OT to K-State in Big 12 title game

Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
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ARLINGTON, Texas — Ty Zentner kicked a 31-yard field goal in overtime as 13th-ranked Kansas State beat No. 3 TCU 31-28 in the Big 12 championship game Saturday, leaving the Horned Frogs to wait another day to find out if they had already done enough to get into the four-team College Football Playoff.

The Wildcats set up the winning field goal after TCU (12-1) had the opening possession of overtime and Kendre Miller was stopped short on consecutive plays from inside the 1.

Deuce Vaughn ran for 130 yards and a touchdown and Will Howard threw two TDs for the Wildcats (10-3, No. 10 CFP), who six weeks earlier had jumped out to a 28-10 lead early in the second quarter before TCU scored the game’s last 28 points.

That was one of five games the Horned Frogs (12-1, No. 3 CFP) won when trailing after halftime. But they couldn’t do it again with the chance to guarantee being the first Big 12 team other than Oklahoma to make the playoff.

TCU, the first Big 12 team to complete a regular season undefeated since Texas in 2009, could still get into the playoff. While their case was helped when fourth-ranked Southern California (11-2) lost 47-24 to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game Friday night, the Frogs now have to wait until the final CFP rankings come out Sunday.

Big 12 Commissioner Brett Yormark said before the game that TCU, with first-year coach Sonny Dykes, already deserved to be in the playoff.

“You look at their strength of schedule. You think about how they’ve performed all year long,” Yormark said. “I think regardless, they should be in, for sure.”

No. 4 USC falls to Utah in Pac-12 Championship, damaging playoff hopes

Utah vs. USC
USA Today
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LAS VEGAS — No. 12 Utah pounded a limping, bloodied Caleb Williams and roared past No. 4 Southern California 47-24 on Friday night to win the Pac-12 Championship and put USC’s College Football Playoff hopes in doubt.

The loss by the Trojans (11-2) could open the way for Ohio State (11-1) to take their spot in the playoffs. USC is fourth in the CFP rankings, the Buckeyes are one step behind.

Ohio State had to be Utah’s biggest fan. The Buckeyes move up in playoff consideration, with 12-0 Michigan at No. 2 with the Big Ten championship game on Saturday, that would give the Big Ten conference two playoff teams for the first time. It also would extend the Pac-12′s playoff drought — Washington in 2017 is the last team from that conference to make the playoffs.

Utah (10-3) is heading to the Rose Bowl, but the Utes already were going there regardless of the outcome of the title game. They are responsible for USC’s only losses, having edged the Trojans 43-42 on Oct. 15 in Salt Lake City.

The Utes rolled up 533 yards of offense in the rematch, and Cam Rising passed for 310 yards and three touchdowns.

Williams threw for 363 yards and three TDs. He entered the game as the leading Heisman Trophy candidate, but wasn’t the same after getting injured in the first quarter.

The Trojans looked as if they were going to run away with the game, taking a 17-3 lead early in the second quarter behind some stellar play by Williams.

He appeared to hurt his left knee or leg in the first quarter on a 59-yard run in which he took a big hit at the end, and he suffered a bad cut on the pinky finger of his throwing hand. He spent most of the game limping, and wasn’t the same after a sterling first quarter in which the Trojans outgained Utah in total yards 194-70, and Williams had both touchdown passes.

After USC failed to pick up a fourth-and-8 from Utah’s 37-yard line, the Utes scored two touchdowns in the final 3:55 of the first half, and suddenly the game was tied at 17. Instead of a rout, the game was beginning to look like the shootout the Utes won in October.

The game took on that tone at times in the second half, but USC had no answer for how to slow down Utah, which outscored the Trojans 44-7 in overcoming that two-touchdown deficit.

ATTENDANCE RECORD

A announced sellout crowd of 61,195 made this the largest for a neutral-site Pac-12 Championship. It beat the previous record of 58,476 fans. who watched Southern California-Stanford in Santa Clara, California, in 2015.