What does loss to UCLA mean for USC, Caleb Williams?

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What does loss to UCLA mean for USC, Caleb Williams?

LOS ANGELES — USC’s once-promising regular season — and potentially Caleb Williams’ career — ended with a major whimper Saturday afternoon.

The UCLA Bruins dominated the Trojans and were the better, more complete team across all four quarters and walked away with a 38-20 win inside the Coliseum. USC was a top-five team at one point this season. It was 6-0. As recently as a few weeks ago, it controlled its destiny in the Pac-12 title race.

It just put the finishing touches on a 7-5 regular season, and honestly, it was a few plays away from being worse than that. So here are initial thoughts on the Trojans’ loss to their crosstown rivals.

Where does USC go from here?

USC went 1-5 to finish the regular season. It was dangerously close to finishing 5-7. The Trojans’ last two wins of the season were a 43-41 triple-overtime win against Arizona and a 50-49 win over Cal. Both required two-point conversion stops at the very end.

For all intents and purposes, this was the last time we’ll see this version of the 2023 USC team. The transfer portal opens in a few weeks, and the team likely will look very different for a bowl game.

The first order of business for Lincoln Riley will be to hire a defensive coordinator. That’s USC’s major flaw, but Riley has so much more to examine than that this offseason.

The offense has serious issues that have to be addressed. The offensive line regressed significantly this season, and Williams often had to run for his life. He was pressured throughout by the Bruins. And USC rushed for just 3 yards because the line, which was down two starters in the second half, couldn’t generate any push against a stout Bruins defense.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams threw for 384 yards against UCLA on Saturday. (Jason Parkhurst / USA Today)

The receivers had trouble getting open all season, which was a contributing factor to the offensive struggles and partly why the offense never seemed to find a rhythm.

Aside from those two units, the Trojans didn’t get enough from their special teams … for the second consecutive season. Aside from punting and Zachariah Branch making some incredible plays, the special teams units were a mess. Denis Lynch has been far too inconsistent at kicker and missed a 25-yard field goal Saturday.

This has to be humbling for Riley, who never has gone through a year like this, and he will have to take a long look at every aspect of the team — starting now.

Caleb Williams’ potential finale

Williams wasn’t perfect Saturday, but he did what he could. Once again, the struggles were so much more about what was around him — a porous defense, an extremely vulnerable offensive line and receivers who struggle to make plays.

Williams completed 31 of 42 passes for 384 yards and one touchdown, but it was far from enough. Williams is an incredible playmaker — he showed that on his 74-yard touchdown pass to Brenden Rice — but USC simply depended on him to make magic happen this season. And against the better defenses like Notre Dame, Oregon, Utah and UCLA, that wasn’t a sustainable path toward success for this offense.

Williams said this week he hasn’t made a decision about his future and entering the NFL Draft, but it would be stunning if he stayed.

Williams is a transcendent talent. Who knows how many games the Trojans would’ve won the past two years without him? But his time at USC will be remembered more so for the opportunity Riley and the program missed while they had him at quarterback.

The turnover margin

When talking about USC’s regression this season, its turnover fortune probably isn’t discussed enough. The Trojans had once-in-a-lifetime turnover luck last season. They were plus-21, the defense forcing 28 turnovers and the offense coughing it up only seven times.

It was always expected that the defense wouldn’t be able to force that many this season, and that has played out to be true. USC has forced only 14 turnovers this season, and that meant the offense had to play extremely clean football, which hasn’t happened.

The Trojans turned it over three times Saturday. MarShawn Lloyd’s third-quarter fumble that UCLA returned 11 yards for a touchdown to build an 18-point lead felt like the dagger. The Trojans finished with 16 turnovers during the regular season, and that was costly in several games.

(Top photo of Caleb Williams, left, and Lincoln Riley: Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)