Caleb Williams stood in the deepest recesses of Tulane territory, his back suddenly, inexplicably against the wall, his team suddenly, inexplicably unraveling before our eyes.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Not after USC had vowed to finish its terrific turnaround season on a high note. Not after USC led by 15 in the final minutes. Not after his Heisman-winning quarterback pushed through a hamstring injury, throwing for 462 yards and five touchdowns to finish just shy of several career highs.
The fact that the Trojans found themselves in such a precarious position at all defied any sense of logic, and yet, USC’s nightmarish finish only grew more demented from there, a comedy of late-game errors that culminated in a last-second, 46- 45 Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane, a team that hadn’t prevailed in a major bowl since the days of the Great Depression.
“It’s gonna linger,” Williams said. “You lose the last game of the season, going into the offseason, it burns.”
For USC, a program long known for its late-season letdowns, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more depressing bowl defeat in the nearly century of postseason games the Trojans have played. Its defense gave up more than 10 yards per play and allowed 305 yards on the ground, both far and away the worst marks of its season. Its offense controlled the ball for nearly double the time Tulane did — 39:49 to 20:11 — and converted 11 of 15 third downs, but somehow still let a win slip away.
“We put ourselves in a phenomenal position to get it done,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said, “then all three sides there at the end … all three sides contributed to it.”
With 4:30 remaining, the Trojans pushed their lead to two scores, seemingly putting the game out of reach. But every step from that moment would go horribly wrong for USC, every issue during the course of an otherwise charmed season rearing its head all at once.
The Tulane scoring drive that followed took all of two plays and 16 seconds, as running back Tyjae Spears capped his 205-yard performance with a fourth touchdown that cut the Trojans lead to eight. Even still, USC had breathing room, assuming it could avoid complete disaster.
Turns out, it couldn’t get through the ensuing kickoff without calamity. The kick caromed off the hands of returner Mario Williams and out of bounds at the one-yard line, a special teams blunder that felt almost impossible to believe in the moment. The fact that Mario Williams had only returned a single kickoff all season only made the play more mystifying.
Which is how Caleb Williams found himself with just a few inches of space to work with and the game suddenly in his more-than-capable hands. The quarterback spent all season conjuring magic out of thin air, creating play after play when USC needed it most. He’d done wonders already on Monday, spreading the ball out to 10 receivers, the most prolific of which, Brenden Rice, had a career-high 174 yards and two scores in a breakout performance.
But in this particular moment, Riley opted instead to take the ball out of his Heisman winner’s hands, handing it off twice to running back Austin Jones, the second of which was swallowed up in the backfield for a safety.
Caleb Williams tried to take the ball from Jones at the last minute, hoping to save something from the game. But “it didn’t happen,” Caleb Williams said. “Safety.”
“It’s sitting heavy in my gut right now,” added center Justin Dedich.
Still, in spite of the successive blunders, the odds remained in USC’s favor. All the Trojans needed was a single stop short of the end zone from its defense.
All month long, coaches and players alike had heaped praise on the progress of USC’s much-maligned defense, a unit that allowed almost 1,500 combined yards during its previous three games. But here, in the precise moment when such declarations are tested, there were no such signs of progress as Tulane worked its way methodically down the field, converting one fourth down, then another; completing one deep pass, then another.
“We got them fourth and long a couple times, and it was like, you just have to finish with another play to put them away,” redshirt senior defensive end Nick Figueroa said. “Just finish, finish, finish. I really can’t say it enough. It’s going to be a word spoken a lot in our locker room for the next eight months. Finish man, finish.”
The way USC finished its season certainly won’t be forgotten anytime soon. Tulane was out of timeouts, when quarterback Michael Pratt, who’d completed just six passes to that point, found Duece Watts for a first down at the six-yard line. Then, with only nine ticks left, he found tight end Alex Bauman for a go-ahead score that required a replay review to believe.
“We played a strong game,” linebacker Shane Lee said. “But at the end, we let it go.”
That conclusion is sure to stick in the craw of USC fans in particular, after weeks of calling for coordinator Alex Grinch’s job amid the Trojans’ recent defensive collapse. But as Riley tried to grapple with their season-ending loss, he was asked about his confidence in the Grinch moving forward.
He didn’t offer much of an answer, let alone a vote of confidence.
“We just got done playing the game 15 minutes ago, so I’m not going to give any big-picture assessments,” Riley said, before proceeding to offer his own, more positive big-picture assessment.
“We made a pretty good jump in Year 1,” Riley said. “And I wouldn’t bet against us to make another big jump next year.”
He’d promised progress on Monday too. But instead of a step forward, Riley lost his fifth bowl game in six tries, while USC stumbled its way out of Texas and into the offseason, where questions about its disappointing defense aren’t going anywhere soon.