Lincoln Riley era can't start soon enough for USC after season-ending loss to Cal

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BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 04: Tahj Washington #16 of the USC Trojans stiff arms Luc Bequette.
USC wide receiver Tahj Washington stiff-arms California defensive lineman Luc Bequette during the Trojans' 24-14 loss Saturday night. (Michael Urakami / Getty Images)

The Lincoln Riley era officially can start at USC. And after a 24-14 loss to California in Berkeley, the new coach’s tenure can’t come soon enough.

If Riley stayed up late for Saturday’s nightcap after his recruiting trips and video calling into “College GameDay” from the backseat of a car, USC’s next coach saw a team in shambles.

The Trojans (4-8, 3-6 Pac-12) tied a season low in scoring and finished the game with third-string quarterback Miller Moss on the field after starter Jaxson Dart was knocked out of the game in the third quarter. The miserable ending seemed painfully fitting for a team that found new ways to confound nearly every week.

Despite outgaining Cal 409-265, USC settled for its worst season since going 3-8 in 1991 because of two fumbles, two missed field-goal attempts and two red zone turnovers.

On a day dominated by College Football Playoff discussion and conference championship games, USC’s inconsequential 8 p.m. start signaled just how far the program had fallen. Neither USC nor Cal (5-7, 4-5 Pac-12) held bowl hopes and the game, which was postponed in November because of a COVID-19 outbreak among Cal’s program, was rescheduled for after the Pac-12 championship game because both teams already were out of title contention by October.

Because of Saturday’s low stakes, there were questions about whether the players would want the game to go on. The Trojans delayed practice on Wednesday last week because they wanted to ensure everyone was “on the same page,” interim coach Donte Williams said.

USC’s lackluster performance did little to dispel rumors of locker room strife.

Battered by injuries, USC brought only 65 players on the trip, including walk-ons. Players such as quarterback Kedon Slovis and running back Keaontay Ingram traveled but did not dress for the game because of injuries.

USC wide receiver Kyle Ford stiff-arms California safety Elijah Hicks on his way to scoring a touchdown.
USC wide receiver Kyle Ford stiff-arms California safety Elijah Hicks on his way to scoring a touchdown in the second quarter Saturday. (D. Ross Cameron / Associated Press)

Some didn’t make the trip because of injuries. Others may have had bigger things on their minds regarding their next steps.

“To each his own,” Williams said, “and I’m just happy for the guys that came here and did fight.”

The program’s uncertain future left players and coaches sifting through a myriad of emotions. Senior running back Vavae Malepeai, who ran for 107 yards in 18 carries, felt nostalgic after his final USC game.

Senior offensive lineman Brett Neilon choked up when talking about possibly saying goodbye for good to offensive line coach Clay McGuire, whose future, along with the rest of the coaching staff, is up in the air with the new regime set to take over.

Moss, a freshman who got the first significant playing time of his career after a crushing hit in the final minutes of the third quarter knocked Dart out, felt optimism. Riley’s addition is “pretty much all that you could ask for” as a quarterback, Moss said.

Transfers are expected in any coaching change, but when asked whether he anticipates playing at USC next season, the freshman from Bishop Alemany didn’t hesitate.

“Absolutely,” Moss said after completing eight of 13 passes for 74 yards and his first touchdown, a late 16-yard score to K.D. Nixon that helped USC avoid a scoreless second half.

With the new coaching staff, all Moss wants is a fair shot. He will battle Dart, who finished with 191 yards and one touchdown on 17-for-26 passing Saturday, and possibly Slovis, the junior who held NFL hopes at the beginning of the season before falling into a competition with Dart and sitting out the last two games because of injury.

The quarterback drama was a subplot to a season safety Isaiah Pola-Mao described as a “roller coaster.” USC had its highlight last Monday when Riley was introduced at a news conference in the Coliseum, but the excitement took a swift nosedive during Saturday’s loss. The Trojans are looking up from here.

“Guys know what we need to do,” defensive end Nick Figueroa said. “We're starting tomorrow with Coach Riley.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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