A tangible sense of hype could be perceived walking into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday. The highly-anticipated Lincoln Riley era officially commenced at USC, nine months after the former Oklahoma coach relocated to the west coast.
Attempting to stifle the buildup was the Rice Owls, which have been known for feisty non-conference openers in the past. While some of that feistiness traveled to Los Angeles in the early moments, a trio of pick-sixes eventually created a sizable gap between the visiting Owls and Riley’s Trojans. USC left no doubt in the end, piling 38 unanswered points to close the door. The final result was a 66-14 evisceration — USC’s highest scoring output since October 2008.
“There’s four plays that really led to this game going into the way it did from a lopsided manner,” Rice head coach Mike Bloomgren said, referring to the Owls’ four interceptions. “We’ve gotta play better in every facet of the game. We knew we needed to protect the ball and force a couple turnovers to beat that team, but that didn’t happen today. I don’t see anything as terminal. I’m not going to hang my head on this thing.”
USC’s pick-six party officially launched in the middle of the second quarter and extended into the early minutes of the third. In the second frame, Rice aimed to convert a 4th and 2 on the 12-yard line to slice a 21-7 deficit to one score. Quarterback Wiley Green found an open Luke McCaffrey in the flats, but the pass ricocheted off McCaffrey’s hands into the waiting arms of USC free safety Calen Bullock. Bullock raced 93 yards down the right sideline to extend the Trojans’ lead to 28-7.
“That ball’s in one of the receivers we count on big-time’s hands, and he was gonna either have the first down at least and maybe end up in the end zone,” Bloomgren said. “Unfortunately, ball pops up and then goes back a distance. Very unfortunate play.”
Then, USC ran back two additional interceptions for touchdowns in the first two minutes of the second half. T.J. McMahon checked in at quarterback after Green suffered a game-ending arm injury, and the Trojans’ linebackers were one step ahead of every McMahon throw.
Alabama transfer middle linebacker Shane Lee delivered an interception 40 yards to the house, and three snaps later, outside linebacker Ralen Goforth cashed in a 31-yard defensive touchdown. On the ensuing series, USC collected its third interception in a three-minute, 41-second span as McMahon’s pass sailed into the hands of strong safety Xamarion Gordon. With three pick-sixes, USC tied its school record set in 1982 and fell one short of the FBS record of four — accomplished by Houston in 1987.
“We were playing well, but that first pick-six — that was adversity,” Rice guard Shea Baker said. “We were ready to come back from it, and then we let it snowball. It’s really hard to win football games when you give them 21 free points.”
Three out of four of the interceptions hit Rice’s receivers in the hands first before deflecting in the gloves of the USC defenders. Thus, drops were among the most pressing issues plaguing the Owls in their 54-point defeat.
“You’re playing college football,” Bloomgren said. “There’s not gonna be any magic pills there. When the ball’s in your hands you gotta catch it. That’s the job of a receiver, so it’s not like our receivers aren’t gonna be able to play football anymore. They’re upset and they’re upset they didn’t perform, but just like all of us, there’s things we can all improve on and we all will.”
Prior to the onslaught of interceptions, Rice matriculated down the field in impressive fashion. The Owls out-rushed USC 133-80 in the first half with Cameron Montgomery breaking free for several long gains. Even Rice’s first offensive drive of the season went according to script, as running back Ari Broussard tied the game at seven apiece on a short touchdown scamper. Broussard later punched his second ticket to the end zone in the waning moments of the second quarter, keeping the gap as close as 14 points with 1:35 remaining in the first half.
“I thought we were being pretty dang efficient,” Bloomgren said about the first half rushing attack. “It felt like we were moving them off the ball and doing some great things. And then we ended up back in the red zone on that third drive and then the pick-six happened.”
Collectively, the Owls averaged a respectable 5.5 yards per rush excluding sacks, but Rice never got its offensive footing back after the downward spiral of miscues. USC pitched a 35-0 shutout in the second half, and the Owls only crossed midfield on one of their seven opportunities in the third and fourth quarters.
“To say things stonewalled probably is an understatement,” Bloomgren said. “We’ve got to find a way to be efficient no matter who’s at the quarterback position which is easier said than done. We’ve got to make sure that our receivers and offensive line do everything we can to make their life as easy as possible.”
Rice ran a multitude of RPOs, but the passing component didn’t prove as fruitful for the Owls as the running game, as demonstrated by the four interceptions and a collective 50 percent completion rate. Although only four completions were observed in the second half, there were several bright spots in the passing game before the break. Former quarterback Luke McCaffrey thrived in the early moments of his first contest playing receiver, capturing five receptions for 51 yards within the first 20 minutes of action.
On the other side, USC’s new arsenal of transfers proved too much for the Rice defense to handle. Stanford transfer Austin Jones added 56 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns while ex-Pitt receiver and reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison snagged two end zone receptions on a team-high five catches. But the headliner of the transfers was quarterback Caleb Williams. The former Oklahoma Sooner, who excelled under Riley as a true freshman, dazzled in his USC debut by completing 19-of-22 passes for 249 yards while attaining a Trojan-best 68 rushing yards.
“He was in control, in command,” Riley said of Williams. “I thought he saw the field well. Our guys up front did a really good job of protecting him and he didn’t have to move around a ton. I thought he played very much in control and very much at ease... It was a really good first start (of the season) for him.”
Despite handing Rice an edge in time of possession due to the litany of interceptions returned for touchdowns, USC still posted 538 yards of offense. The wealth was distributed evenly throughout the unit as no rusher surpassed 68 yards and no receiver eclipsed 54. Riley got countless skill position players involved in his first game as head coach, and the result was near-immaculate efficiency, as only one drive did not result in points.
“Lincoln Riley stuck to his guns,” free safety George Nyakwol said. “These guys were definitely beatable. They didn’t do anything special. We were beating ourselves, and that’s the most frustrating part. Bottom-line comes down to tackling. If we can tackle well, we can play good defense.”
After the Owls’ second-most lopsided loss of the Bloomgren era, they return home in hopes of amending the errors that haunted them, while honing the strong points they showed in Los Angeles. With promising signs displayed in the first half, the players are confident they can come out with a different level of execution for the rest of the season.
“There’s not a game left on our schedule that we can’t win,” Nyakwol said. “It just comes down to execution.”
Green’s timeline to return remains up in the air per Bloomgren, so the Owls may face McNeese State next Saturday with McMahon as the chief signal caller.