If this was Caleb Williams’ final game in a USC uniform, it did not go as planned.
Williams and the Trojans were trounced at home 38-20 by crosstown rival UCLA, dropping their record to 7-5 for the season.
USC opened its season during Week 0, so this was its regular season finale. The Trojans are bowl eligible, but it remains to be seen whether Williams — the reigning Heisman Trophy winner and potential No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL Draft — will decide to play in the bowl game.
Saturday’s loss capped off what has been a brutal second half of the season for Lincoln Riley’s Trojans. USC started the season 6-0 before losing five of six games to close out the regular season. The only win during that stretch was a one-point victory over Cal. Other than that 50-49 victory in Berkeley, USC lost to Notre Dame, Utah, Washington, Oregon and UCLA.
The loss to UCLA on Saturday was the second-most lopsided loss of the season after a 48-20 loss at Notre Dame. Williams threw an incredible 74-yard touchdown pass to Brenden Rice in the first half, but UCLA went into halftime with a 14-10 lead.
The second half was dominated by the Bruins, who scored two touchdowns in the span of 16 seconds to see that lead grow from 14-10 to 28-10 midway through the third quarter. The first of those scores was a seven-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Harden from Ethan Garbers. And then on the first play of the ensuing possession, a fumble from USC’s MarShawn Lloyd was returned for a touchdown.
With the stalwart UCLA defense on the other side, that two-score deficit was just too much to overcome. Other than a third-quarter field goal and a touchdown in the final minutes when the game was out of reach, the once-vaunted USC offense was shut down the rest of the way as the ferocious UCLA pass rush teed off on Williams and his overmatched offensive line.
Williams would finish the day 31-of-42 for 384 yards, but it wasn’t enough.
All the while, UCLA added to its lead with sound decision-making from Garbers and a bruising rushing attack. Riley fired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch a few weeks ago, but the Trojans’ defensive issues haven’t been solved. While Garbers threw three touchdown passes, UCLA finished the game with 199 total rushing yards, making it the eighth time the USC defense has allowed at least 190 rushing yards this season.
USC’s hire of Riley from Oklahoma was a major coup and he led the Trojans to the precipice of the College Football Playoff last year as Williams put together a Heisman Trophy-winning season. But since the 11-1 regular season record last fall, the Trojans are 7-7 in their 14 games since. And with Saturday’s loss to UCLA, Riley has a three-game losing streak for the first time as a head coach across his time at both OU and USC.
With a move to the Big Ten ahead, Riley has a lot to figure out to get the Trojans back on the right track. And barring a massive surprise, Williams will be in the NFL and won’t be there to bail out the USC defense moving forward.