USC's transformation into College Football Playoff contender 'not a vision anymore'

LOS ANGELES – It was Lincoln Riley at his brazen best.

Riley, Southern California’s first-year football coach, strode onto the field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Saturday as the stands filled up before his team’s game against Notre Dame. About 30 minutes before kickoff, he stopped for his customary interview, one that airs over the stadium PA system.

“It’s not a vision anymore,’’ Riley said. “Tonight it’s real. Enjoy it.’’

So, what would Riley have done if the fifth-ranked Trojans stunk up the Coliseum and lost to the 13th-rannked Fighting Irish? What if they had embarrassed themselves in that storied coliseum?

As usual, we’ll never know.

Oh, and the USC faithful? They did not simply enjoy their team’s 38-27 victory over Notre Dame that moved the Trojans one step closer to reaching the College Football Playoff.

They savored it.

They relished it.

They luxuriated in it and, as the game clock wound down, they began to chant with gusto.

Southern California running back Raleek Brown (14) rushes for a touchdown against Notre Dame during the second half at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Southern California running back Raleek Brown (14) rushes for a touchdown against Notre Dame during the second half at United Airlines Field at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

“We are! SC!”

“We are! SC!”

“We are! SC!”

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After the game, Riley sounded no less impressed with what he saw from his team as the crowd of 72,613, the largest for a USC home game this season.

“I don’t know long it’s been since it was like that,’’ he said. “I haven’t been here before. But man, it was electric in there.’’

The electricity first crackled a year ago Monday, when Riley was introduced as the Trojans’ new football coach and said he intended to turn USC into “the mecca of college football.’’

Did he really believe all of this was possible now, considering USC likely will earn a berth to the College Football Playoff if the Trojans defeat Utah - the one team that beat them in the regular season - in the Pac-12 championship game Friday in Las Vegas?

“I didn’t think yes or no,’’ Riley said during his postgame press conference. “It’s like right now. You just go to work and you’re starting to put it together as fast as you can and start building the culture as fast as you can and I can’t say like, yes, I knew this was going to happen.

“But at the same time, I don’t believe in putting limits on what you can accomplish, especially if you get the right people in the building and everybody decides to be unselfish and work hard for each other and that’s what this group has done.’’

Let's not forget that group was largely assembled through the transfer portal after Riley inherited a team that finished 4-8 last season. In all, he brought in 26 transfers, and on Saturday 12 of them were starting for the Trojans.

There was quarterback Caleb Williams, who last year played at Oklahoma under Riley. Now escape artist was dodging countless would-be Notre Dame tacklers while throwing for 232 yards and one touchdown on 18-of-22 passing and rushing for 35 yards and three more touchdowns. For crying out loud, he even punted twice, including a season-best 58 yarder.

There was running back Austin Jones, who last year played for Stanford. Now he was snaking around or battering through Notre Dame defenders while rushing for 154 yards. Then there’s the shaky defense.

USC’s offense, well, it has been every bit as impressive as what Riley built at Oklahoma. And USC’s defense, well, just as suspect as what held back Riley’s teams in Oklahoma.

Yet here, on Saturday night, it appeared clear that the defense is rounding into form as the season reaches is most critical juncture. They delivered with a late interception and a key fumble recovery and by stuffing Notre Dame’s rushing attack. The leading tackler this season is Shane Lee, who last season played  at Alabama. He had four tackles and a tackle for loss Saturday.

“Played a pretty complete football game defensively,’’ Riley said, “and we’ve talked to our guys a lot about the gap of where we’re at versus what we’re capable of, and we took some steps to close that gap tonight.’’

The place oozed confidence before and after the game, too.

Calen Bullock, USC’s starting strong safety, said of Notre Dame, “We knew they was going to try to come here and thought they as going to outphysical us but we wasn’t going for that.’’

Williams, a serious contender for the Heisman Trophy, looked sheepish when asked about striking the Heisman pose after two of his rushing touchdowns.

“I honestly struck it because a bunch of my teammates was saying, ‘Do it.’ ” Riley didn’t seem at all displeased.

And in the postgame carnival of hugs and high fives and cheers, there in an end zone waited Southern California school president Carol Folt, who was among the decision makers when the school lured Riley here – reportedly for $100 million over 10 years.

“He was the right person,’’ Folt told USA TODAY Sports. “We knew it and he felt it. And I just don’t think he ever doubts. He comes in and he works with his players in a way that’s really magical and he shows that attitude. I really respect that positive, we’re-going-to-get-it-done attitude, and they do it.’’

The president and the football coach hugged in an end zone.

The president later shared what she told the coach.

“I love to see what you always said you can do and you do it.’’

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USC nears College Football Playoff with Notre Dame victory