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USC 2022 football season review: How Lincoln Riley fared in Year 1

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If you had asked Lincoln Riley 13 months ago if he would have accepted an 11-win campaign in his first season as USC’s football coach, he would have enthusiastically agreed.

But the circumstances of how the season unfolded left Riley with a bitter taste in his mouth, as he said Monday following USC’s stunning 46-45 Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane.

Of USC’s three losses, one came with a trip to the College Football Playoff on the line. The other two came on the games’ final possessions. The last, Monday’s debacle in Arlington, involved a spectacular collapse in the final 4:30 of play that required two Tulane touchdowns, a fumbled kickoff out of bounds at the one-yard line and a safety.

“In a lot of ways, we’re further ahead in so many areas than I would have thought,” Riley said. “But we clearly have a lot of work to do.”

Let’s take a look at where USC stands after the 2022 season, and what’s left to do entering the 2023 offseason.

What went right

Riley’s brand of the Air Raid offense was as good as advertised and certainly exceeded expectations for what the coach could accomplish in his first year after leaving Oklahoma.

It was clear that this side of the ball was the priority for Riley and his coaching staff in how they approached the transfer portal. In late January and early February last year, it seemed like they pulled in another offensive talent on the daily. And all fit into what Riley was looking to accomplish.

Quarterback Caleb Williams stepped in and became USC’s eighth Heisman Trophy winner as a sophomore, completing 66.6% of his passes for 4,537 yards, 42 touchdowns and five interceptions. Travis Dye and Austin Jones created a formidable duo at running back, combining for 1,589 yards rushing. Receivers Jordan Addison, Brenden Rice and Mario Williams had their moments.

But Riley also elevated the players he inherited at USC. Offensive linemen Andrew Vorhees and Brett Neilon earned All-American honors in their final seasons. Tahj Washington and Kyle Ford carved out roles for themselves despite all the additions at receiver.

It all added up to an offense that ranked third nationally in scoring (41.4 points) and yards (506.6).

What went wrong

In two words, the defense.

No one expected the USC defense to be world beaters in 2022 after a historically bad 2021 season. And in many ways, the unit did improve under coordinator Alex Grinch, with the team creating 29 turnovers and 40 sacks while players like defensive lineman and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Tuli Tuipulotu and cornerback Mekhi Blackmon shined.

But from the first game, USC gave up yards in droves. And somehow it got worse as the season progressed. The Trojans gave up more than 500 yards five times in 2022, two of those coming in the final two games. Their three worst points allowed totals came in the four last games.

And the Trojans’ tackling, never their strong suit, crumbled deeper into the season. USC missed 24 tackles in the Pac-12 championship game loss to Utah. Then after celebrating a jump in development during bowl practices, USC missed 13 more against Tulane while allowing 539 yards and watching the Green Wave put together two drives of over 60 yards in the final 4:30.

Asked what led to these deteriorating performances, defensive captain Shane Lee said it boiled down to a lack of trust. As for the cause of the lack of trust?

“I’m not sure,” Lee said. “It’s probably different for everybody. I gotta look at myself and see what it is for me. It’s something for us to focus on moving forward in this off-season and get fixed.”

Whether it will be Grinch leading those changes remains to be seen after Riley declined to give the coordinator a vote of confidence after the game Monday.

“We’ll take a deep dive into every part of it here over the next couple of weeks. We’ll lay out a plan, just like we did when we landed in L.A. 13 months ago,” Riley said. “You take a deep dive of it, you assess what you’ve got and how can we make it better, and then you go to work.”

Who’s going

There are, of course, a few graduating seniors that USC will miss next year. All-Pac-12 corner Blackmon is gone after one season with the Trojans, as is an instant fan favorite, running back Travis Dye. And starting left tackle Bobby Haskins’ eligibility is expired, too.

Then there are a few stalwarts who have been around USC for years. The losses of Vorhees and Neilon represent a changing of the guard on the USC offensive line. Defensive end Nick Figueroa and tight end Josh Falo graduate, too after seasons contributing at USC.

Then there are those who entered the transfer portal ahead of the Cotton Bowl. Linebackers Ralen Goforth, Tuasivi Nomura and Julien Simon are off to seek greener pastures, as are defensive backs Xavion Alford and Jayden Williams and defensive linemen Kobe Pepe and Colin Mobley.

Who’s on the fence

There will be NFL draft decisions to be made, but no USC player announced ahead of the Cotton Bowl, likely in deference to the team goals.

The most likely candidate to leave early is Addison. A Biletnikoff winner at Pitt, Addison was the leading receiver at USC this year despite missing time with a leg injury and is projected to be a first-round draft pick. No one expected him to be at USC for longer than one season.

Tuipulotu has a strong case to leave early, too, with projections seeing him as a Day 2 prospect after his dominant run of play as a sophomore and junior. Running back Austin Jones and center Justin Dedich also have said they will make their NFL decisions after the bowl game.

And then there is the Gary Bryant Jr. situation. The junior receiver decided to redshirt three games into the season after limited usage. But he remained with USC, attending class and working on the scout team and practicing in the build up to the Cotton Bowl without entering the transfer portal when it opened last month. He will be one to monitor this offseason.

Who’s coming

The Trojans have already loaded up in the transfer portal since the regular season ended. Former Arizona and Pac-12 leading receiver Dorian Singer should step into Addison’s shoes, while USC has also added Arizona corner Christian Roland-Wallace and defensive lineman Kyon Barrs.

The Trojans have also added some replacements at linebacker in the form of Oklahoma State’s Mason Cobb and Georgia State’s Jamil Muhammad. Cobb is the real coup after totaling 96 tackles in 2022 along with two sacks and a forced fumble. And USC will have a reinforcement on the offensive line coming in in the form of Florida starting right tackle Michael Tarquin.

And there’s a lot of talent coming in from the high school ranks, too, with a class ranked 15th nationally by Five-star receivers Zachariah Branch and Makai Lemon could step right in, even with a crowded receiver room. Linebacker Tackett Curtis is highly touted by the USC coaching staff among the six four-stars in the class. And of course there’s five-star quarterback Malachi Nelson, though he will have to bide his time behind Williams for a year.

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