Swanson: USC thriving under new coach Lincoln Riley

LOS ANGELES — What a difference a year – and a coach – makes.

Buckle into your DeLorean and punch in this date: Oct. 9, 2021, and take a gander at the college football standings.

Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma Sooners were 6-0 and coming off a big victory over rival Texas.

At the same time, the USC Trojans – who were being guided at the time by interim coach Donte Williams – were 3-3 after having just suffered a 16-point loss to Utah at the Coliseum.

OK, now come on back to the future: The Trojans – Riley’s new team – are 6-0.

His former team? The Sooners are 3-3 and sinking fast.

Riley came west and welcomed the pressure, proclaiming his goal clearly: Compete for championships. In his first season helming the Trojans, he has yet to lose after USC survived their second dose of real, if fleeting, adversity since he took over.

Before an announced crowd of 63,204 – really, L.A.? that’s all you’ve got? – the nation’s No. 6 team showed the determination and patience necessary to get through college football’s impression of slow-moving, stop-and-go traffic jam in a 30-14 victory over a Washington State team not without weapons. (The Cougars’ crafty QB Cameron Ward required all of the Trojans’ focus and still threw for a couple of touchdowns.)

Earlier Saturday, Riley’s former team’s freefall continued with a historically lopsided 49-0 blowout loss to Texas, the Sooners’ third consecutive defeat making them 0-3 in Big 12 – a fate that had never before befallen an Oklahoma coach in his debut.

While the Trojans improved to 6-0 for the first time since 2006, the Sooners are facing their own history; their next loss will mark just the seventh time in the Big 12’s 108-year history that Oklahoma has dropped more than three games.

These all-of-a-sudden struggles have made an Internet meme out of the proud program.

Even NBA star Kevin Durant got in on the jokes after the Sooners’ latest loss: “Ayo somebody tell Brent Venables to pass the joystick….this ain’t it.”

Ayo somebody tell Brent Venables to pass the joystick….this ain’t it

— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) October 8, 2022

Oklahoma has been hemorrhaging points, having allowed 41, 55 and 49 points in their past three games, dismaying fans who’d tried to assuage their heartache about Riley – and star QB Caleb Williams and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch following him – by tsk-tsking initially about the Sooners’ defense under Riley, who didn’t win a national title in his five-year tenure there.

Thing is, on Saturday, it was Riley’s new defense that saved the Trojans. Sparked by Tuli Tuipulotu’s career night – the former Lawndale High School standout had three sacks and four tackles for loss – the Trojans hassled Ward and held Washington State scoreless after halftime.

The Trojans failed to register a takeaway for the first time this season, but they sacked Ward five times and recorded nine tackles for loss (adding up to 41 yards).

And although the Cougars (4-2, 1-2 in conference) managed to string together 14 consecutive points in the second quarter to make a game of it, they were stifled after that.

Part of that story: USC continued to win third quarters.

By outscoring Washington State 7-0 in the third Saturday, USC now has outpaced its opponents 62-7 in third-quarter action. It was the first third quarter the Cougars lost this season; they’ve now outscored opponents 37-13 in the frame.

That is, for Riley, another sign of his coaching capabilities, of his ability to diagnose a game and improve his team’s chances.

“Coach Riley and USC are as good as it is at attacking what you do,” Cougars coach Jake Dickert said. “He kind of saw us play a little bit and then just had to adjust… they allowed us to maintain some momentum throughout the game, but it wasn’t enough to really punch it in and finish.”

And, offensively, with their often prolific passing game faltering, the Trojans put more emphasis on running after halftime, rushing for 51 more yards than in the first half.

“You gotta win these different ways,” Riley said. “You gotta find ways to move the ball if something’s not working. It can’t be, ‘Well it’s not working, I guess we’re not gonna move the ball tonight, right?’ It’s just continue to find ways and adapt to the situations and we adapted.”

Former Oklahoma receiver Theo Howard talked about his time playing for Riley on the most recent episode of the “Bleav in UCLA Football” podcast (hosted by Southern California News Group’s James H. Williams). Howard – who also played at Utah and UCLA – said that what he liked about Riley was that he doesn’t make things more complicated than they need to be.

On Saturday, that meant simply sticking with it.

“We stayed pretty patient,” Riley said. “We weren’t as clean and had to really stay patient offensively, give the guys credit. They mentally stayed into it and had to have some discipline and we continued to put ourselves in opportunities to make plays.”

The Trojans’ sticktoitiveness kept them undefeated, atop the Pac-12 standings with their surprising crosstown rivals at UCLA – who beat No. 11 Utah, 42-32, on Saturday to also improve to 6-0.

The Trojans get the Utes next, when they’ll have a chance to improve to 7-0 for the first time since 2005.

It’s tempting, isn’t it, to want to fast forward and look ahead? Riley surely will counsel his Trojans not to get ahead of themselves — or to spend too much time looking back.

“When you’re in the middle of it, you try not to get too caught up in all the historical things,” Riley said. “But obviously all of us come here … for a reason. We’re all aware of the history, both positive and some of the tough parts of it. To be able to find a way to win these games, especially in a lot of different ways has been a lot of fun.

“But we know, obviously, more challenges are upcoming.”

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