USC’s fall from grace: How the Trojans’ regular season ended in disappointment

USC's fall from grace: How the Trojans' regular season ended in disappointment

LOS ANGELES – USC’s regular season ended with UCA’s embarrassing and humiliating 38-20 loss to the Trojans in the final crosstown contest.

There will be a bowl game, but it doesn’t matter how this season plays out. So with the 2023 regular season in the books, let’s move on to some final thoughts on the program’s stunning second-half collapse.

1. In this reporter’s opinion, USC’s 1-5 finish in its last six games evokes similar thoughts to last season’s Cotton Bowl finale. That means: What the hell happened?

The main difference between the two is that this slump spanned nine games — the Trojans showed several troubling flaws in the weeks leading up to the loss — and not four and a half minutes like it did against Tulane.

Outside of Caleb Williams, who has been good this season but made more critical mistakes than last year, it’s hard to identify many positives this season.

The run game has been stymied by most good defenses. The receivers haven’t made as many plays as they did a year ago. The offensive line played worse than it did a year ago. The run defense was just as bad as last season and the pass defense was even worse.

Punting and punt return have both improved but not enough to lift the sub special teams division.

Just like the spectacular collapse against Tulane, all levels of the game and coaching — starting with Lincoln Riley — have contributed to this season’s woes. The record stands at 7-5 which is too bad when people see this team as a threat to the College Football Playoff and the Pac-12 Championship in the preseason. If Jed Fisch picks up to go for two in the first overtime of the Arizona game, or if Cal doesn’t kill himself in the fourth quarter, USC could be 5-7 now.

Simply put, Riley and the rest of the staff have done a shockingly poor job on this year’s team – which is very disappointing in college football. And the program enters the offseason with plenty of question marks.

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2. If you were to ask me to pick players who will definitely improve from 2022 to 2023, I’d point to Tahej Washington (52 catches, 963 yards, six TD receptions), who might be the most underappreciated player on the roster. The past two years, and Brendon Rice (45 catches, 791 yards, 12 TD receptions).

Other than that, I may struggle to find five players, which is a big concern. If a program isn’t recruiting at the elite level — and USC isn’t — it needs to develop the players it has.

There wasn’t much going on this season, which, again, was down to the staff. If it is not a development issue, it is an assessment issue.

USC brought in several highly touted transfers last season. Keon Barrs, Bear Alexander, Anthony Lucas and Jack Sullivan were supposed to solidify the Trojans’ defensive line. Alexander was defeated and finished with 5.5 defeats – but really, it was more of a riot than that.

Lucas, Sullivan and Barrs combined for 5.5 TFLs for the entire season. At UCLA, Barrs played 14 times and Lucas only played two. Sullivan played 29 after falling out of the rotation completely midway through the year.

Michael Tarkin was another favorite offseason and opened the season at right tackle but was benched midway through the season. There were three transfers who started on the offensive line (Tarquin, Jarrett Kingston and Emmanuel Pregnon), but that part hasn’t shown up this season.

Dorian Singer finished second in the Pac-12 in receiving last season at Arizona with 1,105 yards on 66 receptions. He caught just 23 passes for 276 yards this season and never seemed to fit in with the offense.

When it comes to roster construction, USC needs to improve everywhere: evaluation, recruiting and development.

3. The receiver position may be the biggest mystery of the season. The team missed Jordan Addison, but many of those players played when Addison missed some good games late last season. They made plays in the Cotton Bowl when Addison opted out.

But the team has struggled to break open this season and doesn’t seem as often drafted as it was in 2022.

Singer has proven to be a good player, but for some reason he hasn’t stepped up to the plate this season. It was a lost season for Mario Williams who didn’t make the same impact he did last season. Williams struggled last year, catching 29 passes for 305 yards after missing a few games last year after catching 40 for 631 yards.

True freshmen Zacharias Branch and Deuce Robinson have both shown flashes this season and the future is bright, but both clearly need to make some progress this offseason.

Kyron Hudson had limited opportunities. Michael Jackson III was suspended at the end of the year. Due to depth issues in the secondary, Mackay Lemon had to move to corner.

This team will be interesting to watch over the next few weeks and months. USC had some departures from the class last season. We’ll see if that happens this season.

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Caleb Williams may have played his last game at the Coliseum in Saturday’s loss to UCLA. (Jason Parkhurst/USA Today)

4. It is very difficult to say whether USC wants this or USC needs it in the portal because they may need more.

Caleb Williams may need a quarterback if/when he declares for the draft. He could lose his top two running backs, so he needs help there. Will he try to add an impact receiver like he did the past two seasons? He probably needs help centering and tackling.

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If Saturday is Caleb Williams’ last game, where will USC return at QB?

A new defensive coordinator will probably need some extra elements on the defensive line. The linebacker has to be better. So make defensive backs.

And so is Kicker.

The Trojans need to emphasize the offensive line as they prepare for life in the Big Ten, but they need more depth and talent at several other position groups.

5. It’s hard to overstate how impressive UCLA’s defense was on Saturday. The Bruins wrestled well, were strong against the run and were fundamentally sound.

If you’re a USC fan, you have to hope that whoever the next defensive coordinator is, he can have the same impact on the Trojans’ defense. But hiring a new defensive coordinator is just the beginning of the work that needs to be done on that side of the ball.

USC needs to practice differently because what it has been doing the past two years has not yielded any results. He needs to change his mentality on the ball and be more physical defensively.

Can New DC change all that? let’s see.

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6. Chip Kelly is not a perfect coach. Far from it. A long time ago, he had a nervous defensive coordinator. He can definitely put more effort into the way he was recruited. He could have been better prepared for life in the program after Dorian Thomson-Robinson.

But UCLA has an identity. He wants to run the ball and everything flows from there. He also found something on the defensive side of the ball this season.

Between the Bruins and the Trojans, UCLA might be better prepared for year one in the Big Ten than USC in terms of physicality on the offensive line and identity – the Bruins don’t have a problem being physical. They’ve gone toe-to-toe with Utah in that division the past two seasons.

If USC is going to turn things around, Riley needs to prove the identity of the program and whether he’s the guiding light or the North Star. If this past season has shown anything, it’s that USC desperately needs some kind of identity — or a new one that’s different from all the negativity that’s been thrown around over the past two months.

(Top photo: Jason Parkhurst / USA Today)