Late last summer, this columnist asked Lincoln Riley for his expectations for this season.
“To win the championship,” he said.
He was crazy. He was cocky. He was right.
Unbelievably, after 11 games, Riley’s USC football team is in a position to fulfill the wildest of expectations in the most extravagant of ways.
Incredibly, less than a year after a 4-8 debacle, the Trojans are riding a 10-1 dream after an unexpectedly powerful 48-45 defeat of UCLA Saturday at the Rose Bowl.
Unexpectedly, at least in this space, because the pick was the Bruins.
Powerful, because, boy, was I wrong.
The Bruins were predicted to have the better quarterback, but while Dorian Thompson-Robinson was spectacularly tough, he committed four turnovers while Caleb Williams was Heisman-good. Seriously, send this young man to New York City after he racked up 503 total yards and three total touchdowns while going 32 of 43 for 470 passing yards. In case you were wondering, yes, 503 yards is the highest total individual output in this series’ 92-game history.
The Bruins were also predicted to have the better of two bad defenses, but the Trojans held when necessary — including on UCLA’s final potential game-tying drive, and outgained the Bruins 649-507.
Finally, the Bruins were predicted to have an obvious home-field advantage, but USC fans filled up an end zone and howled through the night as their team made one inspirational play after another.
The final moment of inspiration occurred in the waning minutes of the game, when Korey Foreman intercepted Thompson-Robinson around midfield to clinch the victory.
“We Are…SC!” chanted their fans and, indeed, they are correct.
The Trojans are once again Trojans, even engaging in their trademark road celebration, rushing to the marching band and dancing to the music.
The championship path for the seventh-ranked Trojans is now clear. If USC beats Notre Dame next week and then wins the Pac-12 championship game on Dec. 2 in Las Vegas, they will almost certainly be selected as one of the four teams selected for the College Football Playoff’s final four, with the championship to be played Jan. 9 at SoFi Stadium.
So, yeah, in avenging a 62-33 drubbing by the Bruins last season, the Trojans are still playing for a championship.
“We didn’t come here to play for second, we are not wired that way,” Riley said on that late-summer day. “We came here competitively to win championships, win them now and to win them for a long time.”
Could that time begin now? At the start of Saturday’s game, it didn’t seem like it.
USC entered with 26 transfers and seemingly little idea about the magnitude of this crosstown rivalry.
“Treating it like another game, just like any other game we have been in,” Williams said before the game. “I’ve been in other big rivalry games so far in my career so, treating it like another game.”
UCLA countered with fifth-year senior Thompson-Robinson doing just the opposite, actually stoking the rivalry.
“I obviously know what’s at stake, trying to teach my younger teammates the tradition and everything that goes along into this game,” he said before the game. “Obviously we hate those guys across town, it’s a bitter feeling with those guys.”
There was a clear difference in intensity, and early in the game it showed, as USC fell behind 14-0 in front of a roaring crowd that sensed a rout.
On USC’s first possession, the Trojans drove 54 yards on 10 plays but it was all for nothing when Williams was stuffed on fourth and one on the UCLA 21-yard line.
After the Trojans defense held the Bruins, the offense took control again and drove 41 yards in five plays to set up Denis Lynch for a 32-yard field goal attempt. But he missed wide left, ruining the second of two great early Trojan opportunities before UCLA had scored a point.
After UCLA found its offense and drove 80 yards downfield to score on a Thompson-Robinson sneak, USC blew it again, when Williams committed only his third interception of the season, a poor pass that was picked off at midfield by Kain Madrano.
On the next play, Thompson-Robinson found Michael Ezeike open down the right sideline for a 30-yard touchdown pass and an eventual 14-0 UCLA lead.
Blowout happening? Not quite. USC fought back to score on drives of 72,75 and 79 yards.
Williams rushed for six yards for one touchdown, Austin Jones ran eight yards for another touchdown, and Lynch kicked a 44-yard field goal.
It was enough to keep the Trojans close against a UCLA offense that was equally unstoppable, and then USC had a great chance to take the lead at the end of the first half when Mekhi Blackmon stepped in front of a Thompson-Robinson pass and returned it to the USC 35-yard line in the final minutes.
But on third down deep in Bruin territory, Brenden Rice dropped a pass, then Lynch missed a 33-yard field goal wide left, his second miss of the night.
But the Trojans weren’t done. On the ensuing UCLA drive, Thompson-Robinson had his second interception in two possessions, this one picked out of mid-air by a leaping Shane Lee. Three plays later, Lynch was short on a 49-yard field goal, but UCLA’s Chip Kelly had called a timeout, so they ran the play again, and this time Lynch nailed it, ending the half with UCLA leading 21-20.
The score was misleading, as USC had outgained UCLA 368-224 while averaging an amazing 8.4 yards per carry. The Trojans were down by a point, but could have easily led by at least two touchdowns.
The Bruins reeled off an 11-play drive to start the third quarter but USC eventually held, and the Bruins had to settle for a 46-yard field goal by Nicholas Barr-Mira to give them a 24-20 lead.
USC took over and, four plays later, Williams found Jordan Addison all alone down the right sideline for a 35-yard touchdown pass to give the Trojans their first lead at 27-24 with 8:50 left in the third quarter.
They never trailed again.
And, amazingly enough, now the real fun begins.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.