June 22, 2024

LOS ANGELES — As UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond and Bruins players dragged the Victory Bell through the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum tunnel following a dominant 38-20 victory over their crosstown rivals Saturday, USC and head coach Lincoln Riley found themselves staring at a bitter end to their disappointing season.

The Trojans losing five of their final six regular-season games would have appeared unfathomable when they began the season as the sixth-ranked team in the country. But as they searched for answers following a 7-5 campaign, there was plenty of blame to go around.

“I’ve clearly not done a good enough job in the second half of the season to get this team ready,” Riley said. “I’ve got to do a much better job.”

In the finale, USC’s performance was emblematic of its season-long struggles. With little on the line except the pride of beating their rivals, the Trojans once again displayed poor defensive play, sloppy mistakes and an inconsistent offense that couldn’t be saved even by reigning Heisman winner Caleb Williams.

“We just didn’t execute,” wide receiver Tahj Washington said. “We’re just leaving a lot out there. That’s just been an epitome of what it’s been lately.”

Williams, a junior who is likely headed to the NFL as the presumptive No. 1 pick, elected not to speak to the media Saturday.

“He came here and took a chance on this place and took a chance on being a part of restarting this program and getting it going,” Riley said. “He’s a special player, special competitor, and obviously we’ll see what goes on from there.”

Williams, who threw for 386 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception, said earlier this week that he would take the Thanksgiving break to ponder any future decisions. All season, he struggled to match the magic of his 2022 campaign behind an offensive line that took a step back and allowed 35 sacks, including four against UCLA.

“It’s just extremely disappointing to finish this way with, obviously, how well we started the season,” Riley said.

USC’s 6-0 start is a distant memory in a season that was marked by close losses and unconvincing victories. The defense’s historic turnover margin last season could not be replicated, as the unit became one of the worst in the country, leading to coordinator Alex Grinch’s firing.

Grinch’s departure did not fix much. The Trojans allowed 38 points to a UCLA offense that had scored 45 total points in its three previous games.

“There’s so much talent in the ecosystem, so you see it every day just being around each other,” safety Jaylin Smith said. “But it is a game of execution and like I said, the other team executes better, then that’s the outcome.”

Riley reiterated his disappointment in the way the season transpired, but also said the team was “worn down emotionally” from its past nine games — all of which were won or lost by fewer than 20 points.

“The reality is, you play better and you coach better, then you’re not in that many [close games],” Riley said. “It sucks right now. It hurts right now, but I’ve never been more motivated and had more of a fire in my belly than I do right now.”

While Riley did not specify whether USC will make any other staff or strategic changes before next season, when the Trojans move to the Big Ten, he acknowledged the need for evolution despite last season’s turnaround.

“I’m going to fight my ass off in every single way to make sure this thing gets to where it needs to be.” Riley said. “Everyone wants the clean, smooth road to the top. That’s for the movies, man. The road to the top is jagged. It’s going to take its different twists and turns, especially coming from where this was.”

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