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.
The loss doomed USC to its worst season since going 3-8 in 1991.
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 like quarterback Kedon Slovis and running back Keaontay Ingram traveled but did not dress for the game because of injuries.
The energy that helped USC to its most impressive effort of the season last week against Brigham Young went silent in front of a more than half-empty road stadium. Even after Kyle Ford caught a 45-yard touchdown pass in the second quarter to gives the Trojans a short-lived lead, any jumping on the USC sideline was more likely a sign of players trying to stay warm during a chilly night instead of showing excitement.
Ford’s touchdown, just the second of the season for the former five-star prospect whose career has been slowed by injuries, was the one bright spot for USC in the first half. The rest was much like the whole season: forgettable.
The Trojans had two missed field goals from Parker Lewis. A fumble from running back Darwin Barlow turned into a 55-yard scoop and score for Cal that was the second of two straight touchdowns by the Bears to finish the first half.
Things reached a new low when a crushing blow from Cal’s Josh Drayden and Femi Oladejo knocked Dart out of the game late in the third quarter. The freshman quarterback stretched his arms around the shoulders of two athletic trainers as he walked off the field after completing 17 of 26 passes for 191 yards and one touchdown. With Dart being examined in the injury tent and Slovis wearing a knitted beanie, Moss was left to handle a fourth-and-two play from Cal’s three-yard line. It went awry when tight end Erik Krommenhoek dropped a direct pass on a jet sweep.
Moss, a freshman from Mission Hills Bishop Alemany who had just one snap this season, took a devastating hit of his own in the fourth quarter, fumbling the ball on the Cal eight-yard line when Daniel Scott sacked the quarterback from behind. Cal recovered the ball and drove 68 yards and scored when a missed tackle in the backfield let Cal running back Christopher Brooks get into the end zone for a two-yard touchdown.
Moss finished eight for 12 for 74 yards and threw his first touchdown pass when he found K.D. Nixon from 17 yards out with 1:38 left to help USC avoid a new season low in scoring.