The cry arose from the delighted Oregon State crowd midway through the first half, thousands of orange shirts bursting with swagger at a USC team that was falling flat on its face.
“Over-rated … over-rated …”
Not yet, anyway. Not on this night. Not with this coach. Not with this culture.
Within two minutes of blowing another monumental game at cursed Reser Stadium on Saturday night, something breathtaking happened with what appears to be a pretty darn breathtaking Trojans team.
They were terrible, terrible, terrible … then brilliantly terrific.
Caleb Williams was terrible, terrible, terrible … then beautifully tenacious.
The defense was terrible, terrible, terrible … then smartly surly.
The game was lost, then won, then lost again, then was flat stolen with a riveting drive that ended with one last gasp with 1:13 remaining. That’s when Jordan Addison caught a 21-yard sideline bullet from Williams and slipped into the end zone.
Crushed orange. Crowd frozen. Addison waving farewell into the stands. Williams screaming at the turf. All of Corvallis eventually filled with an eerie silence broken only by the sound of the USC players filling their locker room with their fight song.
The Trojans won 17-14 to remain unbeaten and unfazed and anything but overrated.
If anything, the seventh-ranked Trojans are underrated.
“We found a way, and it feels damn good,” said coach Lincoln Riley.
This was not the clean blowout experienced in their first three wins. This was more like the remodeling project that swallowed half of Reser Stadium and forced the squeezing of 25,000 fans into one side.
This was messy. This was awkward. This was rough. This was the first time the Trojans did not score a touchdown on their first possession, and the first time they trailed, and for many long moments it seemed like the first time they would lose.
“I’m probably more proud of this win than the previous three,” said Riley, later adding, “If anything we’ve done up to this point shows the progress we’re making in that locker room, within the walls, the culture, tonight really showed that.”
That new culture made its most obvious appearance with 4:35 remaining and the Trojans trailing by four after an embarrassingly easy 18-yard touchdown run by Jam Griffin.
USC had the ball on its 16-yard line with a quarterback who had been awful and an offense that had gained minus-one yards in its previous two possessions and failed to take advantage of an interception and an Oregon State missed field goal.
This is a team that stinks. But this is a team that believes, and you can probably guess what they said to each other in the huddle.
“It’s our time to shine,” recalled Addison.
You can also probably guess what they said to each other on the bench.
“It’s not something that phases us,” said safety Max Williams. “We were saying on the sideline, ‘We do this every week.'”
Caleb Williams threw two passes to Tahj Washington for 23 yards, threw a couple of incompletions and suddenly the Trojans faced a fourth-and-six from around midfield. That doesn’t happen every week. That hasn’t happened this season. What happened next shows this team is as much about the grind as the glamour.
Williams took off running, was surrounded by tacklers, then surrounded by blockers, then eventually was literally pushed to a first down by his offensive linemen. Anyone else see that and think of Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart?
“Those are the moments, right?” said Riley. “That’s what it comes down to. Fourth down and you go to find a way.”
Williams, who was disappointedly not available to the media after the win, gained seven yards on the play and five snaps later threw the touchdown pass that led to Addison’s wave to the stunned crowd.
“It’s time to go home,” Addison said when asked about the gesture. “Pack it up.”
Williams spent most of the night looking as if he wished he never left home. Even counting that last drive, he was only 16-of-36 passing for 180 yards. At times, it seemed the only person cheering him was Riley, who was visibly tapping his shoulders and staring into his eyes and encouraging him on the bench.
“I said, ‘We’ve been there before, you just got to go play,'” said Riley. “Some days you’re not going to be at your best… how you respond to those moments is what separates you.”
The Trojans completed the night’s separation with their fourth interception, a catch by Max Williams that gave them 11 interceptions in four games while the offense has yet to commit a turnover.
“Really great teams find a way no matter what the circumstances,” said Riley. “We found a way.”
This was indeed their best win in their worst game this season. Perhaps no other USC teams since the Pete Carroll era could survive at Reser despite allowing 153 yards rushing, despite trailing twice and despite being so flustered by the charged atmosphere that they used up all three first-half timeouts early in the second quarter.
The students cursed USC in signs on their dorm windows. They painted their bellies with BEAVS. Their orange shirts turned the cheering section into a giant, blinding sunset.
“Being able to be in a situation like that, you need games like that to show who you are as a team,” said linebacker Shane Lee. “We haven’t been put in any situation like that before. For us to come up here, back against the wall for most of the game, to be able to fight and keep fighting and fight again.”
They kept fighting even as the public-address system blared the sound of a chainsaw with every third down, even as fans constantly chanted and gestured, even as this crazy half-stadium felt like three stadiums.
“Even towards the end, you might lose hope, some teams might lose hope, we still believed and still pushed through,” said Lee.
They literally pushed through, not only with Williams on that fourth-down play, but with Travis Dye gaining 133 yards and scoring on a seven-yard touchdown run, proving he is becoming as much of a weapon as his quarterback.
“If you just keep fighting, keep chipping away, keep chipping away, you’re bound to end up the way we did tonight,” said Dye. “These are the moments we live for. This is it.”
This wildly talented and deeply motivated USC football team is indeed plenty of things.
Overrated is not one of them.