By Don Wanlass
USC football coach Lincoln Riley got most of it right this year.
He turned the program around from last year’s 4-8 record to almost qualifying for the College Football Playoffs for the first time under the current format.
In the end, though, the Trojans defense let the team down — in a 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac 12 Championship Game that kept the Trojans out of the playoffs and in the 46-45 loss to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl Jan. 2.
The Trojans gave up 533 yards to Utah and 539 to Tulane. More importantly, they couldn’t stop either team when it mattered. Tulane converted two fourth downs on its winning touchdown drive in the final minute of the game.
If the Trojans had made a play on either one of those fourth downs, they would have been celebrating a bowl win. Instead they go into the offseason happy with an 11-3 record on the season but wondering what might have been.
The Trojans blew a 15-point lead in the last 4:30 of the game after Denis Lynch kicked a 43-yard field goal to give the Trojans a 45-30 lead, which looked insurmountable at the time.
But then the roof caved in. It took Tulane two plays (and 23 seconds) to score.
Running back Tyjae Spears gained 59 yards on the first play in the series and then scored from 4 yards out on the next to cut the lead to eight.
Things went from bad to worse on the ensuing kickoff when Mario Williams fumbled the ball out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Austin Jones was tackled in the end zone for a safety and the Trojans lead was down to 45-39 and the Green Wave had more than three minutes to play with.
Quarterback Michael Pratt guided his team 66 yards in 12 plays, including two fourth-down conversions before hitting Alex Bauman with a 6-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left to complete the comeback and seal the Trojans’ fate.
The Tulane comeback overshadowed a courageous game by USC quarterback Caleb Williams. Playing with an injured hamstring that obviously slowed him down and kept him from scrambling at times, Williams threw for 462 yards and a Cotton Bowl record five touchdowns.
It wasn’t enough to make up for a USC defense that saw Spears average 12 yards a carry on 17 carries and score four times. In addition to his 59-yard run to set up the next to last touchdown, he also broke off a 62-yard run against a Trojan defense that looked like it had never had a tackling drill all season.
Pratt completed only eight of 17, but those eight completions gained him 234 yards, more than 29 yards per completion.
Riley may have performed miracles in his first season at USC, but he needs to do something about the defense if the Trojans are going to return to the upper echelon of college football where their fans think they belong.
I’m not calling for the head of defensive coordinator Alex Grinch yet. But I do hope the Trojans work on tackling drills this spring. Or find players in the transfer portal that already know how to tackle.
SUN BOWL COMEDOWN: UCLA’s bowl experience was similar to USC’s. The Bruins led through three quarters, but couldn’t close out the Pitt Panthers, who rallied from a 28-14 deficit to win 37-35 on a last-second field goal.
The Bruins thought they had won the game when running back T.J. Harden scored on an 8-yard run with 34 seconds to play, giving the Bruins a 35-34 lead after Pitt had scored 20 unanswered points.
But Pitt moved the ball 46 yards in six plays — taking only 30 seconds in the process — and Ben Sauls kicked his fifth field goal of the day from 47 yards out to give the Panthers the win.
Pitt played without five starters, including former USC quarterback Kedon Slovis and their best running back. UCLA played without its top running back Zach Charbonnet.
Pitt backup quarterback Nick Patti directed an offense that rolled up 443 yards against the Bruins and dominated time of possession by more than 14 minutes.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson ended his Bruins career with a 271-yard and two-touchdown performance, but he threw three interceptions and left the game with an injury in the fourth quarter after throwing his last pick.
Backup Ethan Garbers completed 6 of 9 passes and led the drive that almost won the game for the Bruins. Harden stepped up in Charbonnet’s offense and gained 111 yards in only 11 carries.
UCLA finished with a 9-4 record, that saw them lose three of their last four games. Like their crosstown rivals USC, the Bruins need to strengthen their defense so the offense doesn’t have to score every time it has the ball.
WILD CARD LEADER: The Los Angeles Chargers end the regular season Jan. 8 against the Denver Broncos with a chance to clinch the No. 5 playoff seed in the AFC.
That would mean the Chargers would face the winner of the AFC South in a wild card game Jan. 14 or 15.
The 8-8 Jacksonville Jaguars currently have a one-game lead over the Tennessee Titans. Those two teams square off Jan. 7 for the division title, so you know the Chargers will be watching.
The Chargers soundly defeated the Rams 31-10 Jan. 1, holding the Rams to only 277 total yards a week after the Rams scored 51 points against the Broncos.
Austin Ekeler gained 122 yards on only 10 carries and scored twice while also catching his 100th pass of the season. He becomes only the fifth running back in NFL history with 100 receptions in a season.
Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert completed 75% of his passes while throwing for 212 yards and two touchdowns as the Chargers won their fourth straight game and fifth put of six.