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Lincoln Riley has USC back where it belongs: 'College football on the West Coast is alive and well'

No. 5 USC has a good chance at a College Football Playoff berth

PASADENA, CA — USC stands alone atop the Pac-12 following a 48-45 win over rival UCLA in a Saturday night classic at the Rose Bowl. 

Caleb Williams shined, establishing career-highs with 470 passing yards and 503 total yards, the most by one player in the history of the USC-UCLA rivalry.

The Trojans eliminated their cross-town rivals from Pac-12 title contention, leaving Oregon, Utah and Washington alive in the race for the second title game spot. Oregon controls its own destiny and can clinch a berth with a win over Oregon State on Friday.

Here are three key takeaways from USC's monumental win:

USC LEANED HEAVILY ON ITS OFFENSE ... AGAIN

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Outscoring opponents in shootouts has been a formula for success for the Trojans, just like it was for Lincoln Riley’s Oklahoma teams in recent years. USC amassed 649 yards of offense and outgained the Bruins by 136 yards.

USC showcased once again why its offense is among the best in college football. Jordan Addison’s return to action was huge for the Trojans, as the former Biletnikoff winner grabbed 11 catches for 178 yards, including a 35-yard touchdown.

“It felt really good to be back out there with my brothers. You know I missed about two to three weeks so it just felt really good just being back out there,” Addison said. “This was a really big win. Shout to the defense for stepping up at the end, we just gonna keep rolling.”

With another monster performance, Williams’ totals over the last five games are 2,028 yards and 23 touchdowns. His season stats are up to 3,796 yards and 40 touchdowns, which should garner serious Heisman Trophy consideration, especially combined with the success of his team.

Not surprisingly, the quarterback and his coach are focused on the bigger picture. 

“Having coached some guys like that in the past, guys that win individual awards, you don’t focus on that. Just try to win each week for your team,” Riley said. “He’s been one of the best players in the country this year. He’s really played well. All those things, it’s gotta stay about the ball, and that’s the most important thing."

The running game also didn’t miss a beat in USC’s first game without leading rusher Travis Dye. Austin Jones handled the bulk of the ground game with 21 carries for 120 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught four passes for 57 yards.

“He was huge, but exactly what we expected him to be. Exactly what he has been. There’s not one person in the locker room surprised about the way he played,” Riley said. “There was no doubt in that locker room that he was ready.”

TURNOVERS WERE THE SAVING GRACE FOR USC'S DEFENSE

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The key to this game defensively was containing UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson and forcing him into making mistakes. Though he amassed nearly 400 yards of offense and six touchdowns, the Trojans were somewhat successful in achieving this goal.

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Thompson-Robinson threw three interceptions and fumbled after being sacked in his own red zone, setting up an easy USC touchdown.

Though two of his interceptions came late in the first half and only resulted in three points for USC, the game ended up being decided by three points, so the Trojans found a way to get it done in the end.

“Defensively, we gave up some plays but then got the four turnovers; those were the difference in the game,” Riley said.

As expected, USC’s defense struggled to get off the field outside of the takeaways, with all but two of UCLA’s drives ending in a score or a turnover.

When USC had to give the ball back to the Bruins with just over two minutes left and a three-point lead, it felt like a takeaway was the only way the Trojans were going to pull out a victory, at least in regulation.

Korey Foreman stepped up in a big way, jumping the route for the game-ending interception. 

“We talk all the time that a play has to be made at the end of the game to win,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “If you’re not careful, the advantage goes to the offense because they know they have to make a play. On the defensive standpoint, we have to make sure we match that mentality wise. We felt that in the moment we did.”

“It was really cool for him,” Riley said. “You just never know when it’s going to be your moment, and he was ready. Shane [Lee] made sure he had the call, and then he dropped back and made a great play on the ball. It wasn’t an easy play. Excited for Korey, he’s worked hard behind the scenes. A great example of ‘don’t worry about outside expectations or what other people think.’ It doesn’t matter, you just keep working and improving, and things happen. He’s a tough kid on top of that.”

Foreman hasn’t quite panned out to be the player he was expected to be coming out of high school, but it says a lot about the coaching staff’s faith in him that he was on the field in such a high-pressure situation.

THIS IS A RESILIENT USC TEAM

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Though the offense was incredible as always, the best sign USC showed Saturday night was resilience. After putting together two strong drives to open the game and coming away with zero points, the Trojans found themselves in a 14-0 hole early in the game.

“Being down 14-0 and then not even flinching, not even thinking about flinching,” Riley said. “You can’t write the script first, you have to just be ready to respond. For us to respond like that, over and over. The other thing I’d say is how many guys stepped up who haven’t had a statistically huge year. You go down the list, we keep talking about the closeness and culture and togetherness of this team, and I think it was on full display tonight.”

Williams reinforced the importance of bouncing back. 

“Swings are going to happen, and you have to be prepared for them," said Williams. "That’s what Coach told us, he prepares us that way. You have to keep fighting, you have to stay together.”

Most importantly, USC is back on the map. They re-established themselves as the dominant team in California, secured a spot in the Pac-12 championship game and are just two wins away from a trip to the College Football Playoff.

This is what Riley was supposed to do when he got to USC. It hasn’t always been pretty, but the end result is a 10-1 team with a Heisman contender at quarterback leading a highly-dangerous offense.

“College football on the West Coast, and here in L.A. is alive and well. The people that were in that stadium tonight, whether you were a UCLA fan or USC fan, they won’t forget nights like that. What an unbelievable experience. That’s how it’s got to be every week,” Riley said to close his press conference. “I’m not just talking about at our place or anything like that, if you’re in this area and didn’t come to this game, boy you missed out. Don’t miss out on too many more.”

Center Brett Neilon has been around for a few of these matchups with UCLA now and will get to leave USC on a high note after redeeming last year’s embarrassing home loss to the Bruins. 

“We heard all their stuff," said Neilon. "But you can tell those teddy bears we beat them. We run L.A.”