Lincoln Riley peered out over the Coliseum from atop his new gilded perch, dreaming up a future that just days before seemed no more than a pipe dream. It was Nov. 28, 2021, as USC’s new coach stood over a surreal scene from the stadium’s Scholarship Tower, promising to turn the Trojans into contenders and the Coliseum into mecca.
Considering the depressing depths to which USC had fallen in recent years, no reasonable soul could’ve expected in that moment to see those promises basically fulfilled in under a calendar year. But 363 days after his declaration, Riley stood on that very field for the last time this season with another rival vanquished, a Pac-12 title in close reach and the College Football Playoff presumably just one win away.
What once seemed improbable, if not entirely impossible, was now unfolding before the nation, a reality even the most serious of college football skeptics could no longer deny.
“Just imagining that,” Riley said Saturday night, “these guys have brought it to life.”
USC’s coach had never wavered in his confidence throughout that stunning yearlong turnaround, and neither had his Trojans. That much was abundantly clear with the stakes impossibly high on Saturday, as No. 6 USC dismantled No. 15 Notre Dame and its vaunted defense in a 38-27 win, its 11th of the regular season.
Not since the glory days of Pete Carroll have the Trojans won 11 of their first 12 games, a regular-season mark they last reached in 2008. USC spent the next dozen years after Carroll’s exit desperately trying to capture that same magic, searching for exactly what it seems to have found this season.
Even Carroll, however, only had a few, precious shots at a national title like the Trojans now do.
“It’s been a tremendous run, but there’s obviously a lot more left out there for us,” Riley said. “So we’ve got to enjoy it, but put it to bed here quickly.”
Riley is right. USC’s path to the College Football Playoff isn’t exactly paved just yet. But on Saturday, the dominoes seemed to fall in perfect succession. First, Michigan beat up Ohio State, ousting the Buckeyes from contention — at least, for the time being. Texas A&M cleared the way after that with an upset of Louisiana State, one of the last teams capable of playing spoiler with USC’s playoff hopes.
Those hopes were laid squarely on the shoulders of USC’s show-stopping quarterback Caleb Williams, whose performance on Saturday should secure his place as a Heisman frontrunner, if not send him straight to the podium.
All eyes across the nation were on the Trojans quarterback, who’d spent most of his season eviscerating Pac-12 defenses well after many Heisman voters had dozed off. But the sheer ease with which Williams disposed of Notre Dame on Saturday, rushing for three touchdowns while throwing for another, should rouse some of those sleeping stragglers awake. Especially after fellow frontrunner CJ Stroud struggled in Ohio State’s loss to Michigan.
If that weren’t enough, Williams offered his own reminder to those football masses, striking the Heisman pose near USC’s sideline after a score, simply to satisfy his teammates, who’d been clamoring for him to make a statement.
His play was certainly statement enough, not only in defeating Notre Dame, but throughout his debut season at USC. Williams deepened his mark on the school’s record books once again Saturday, becoming the single-season leader in rushing as a USC quarterback. In the process, he’d gain hundreds more yards eluding Notre Dame defenders, none of whom seemed able to stop the Trojans slippery star.
He wasn’t the only Trojan the Irish seemed entirely unable to tackle. Austin Jones continued his scorching stretch in the wake of Travis Dye’s season-ending injury, pacing USC’s offense with 154 yards on 25 carries.
USC’s defense did its part on Saturday too, keeping the touted grinding rushing attack in total check. Notre Dame ran for just 90 yards on Saturday, a season-low for the Irish and for USC’s defense.
“Honestly I got sick and tired of hearing how we were going to get pounded in the run game,” Riley said. “That didn’t happen.”
Little about USC’s season would happen as many expected. But by Saturday, the usual beats of a USC win under Riley were being struck in their usual succession. The Trojans got off to a fast start, scoring within just four minutes. The defense came up with critical stops, forcing two turnovers and twice thwarting drives in the red zone. Then, as he so often does, Williams took advantage. By that point, it was too late for the Irish, who couldn’t hope to match USC and its explosive quarterback.
Even as Notre Dame’s quarterback completed his first 15 pass attempts, remaining perfect well into the fourth quarter, it wouldn’t matter. Drew Pyne hit eight pass plays of 20-plus yards, including a 22-yard touchdown to tight end Michael Mayer in the first half that cut USC’s lead to a field goal.
But the Trojans never let their rival get closer. His quarterback took care of the rest, well on his way to a Heisman Trophy.
When it was all over, Riley would walk towards the tunnel, knowing the promises he’d made a year had so far been kept.