Music blasting on the speakers and bursts of laughter were heard on Howard Jones Field Tuesday. But one whistle blew, and all players were relentlessly back to work on their intense drills.
The Trojans ended their regular season perfectly, winning against rival Notre Dame for the first time since 2017, 38-27. With five touchdowns and 436 yards of offense, the Trojans put on a complete performance and head into the Pac-12 Championship Game with plenty of confidence.
On Friday, the Trojans will meet again with the only team that could defeat them this year — and by only one point — the Utah Utes.
“It’s a championship game. I mean, you’re going to play a good team regardless,” USC head coach Lincoln Riley said. “I don’t think we would be any more or less excited if it was anybody else.”
USC lost 43-42 to the Utes on October 15, the first loss during the Riley era, which was a disappointing result after the Trojans were ahead during the entire game. Even though that defeat prevented the Trojans from having a perfect season, Riley refuses to see Friday’s game as revenge for the earlier loss.
“This is not a revenge game,” Riley said. “They got us that time. But this is not about that game. This is a new game, a new challenge and a new setting. Teams have evolved. Both teams have changed — certainly — throughout the year.”
The USC defense will indeed play a significant role in the matchup against Utah. As has been preached since the beginning of the season, the Trojans are convinced turnovers will be key in winning this weekend.
“We talk about it every day [the turnover importance], like all day, every day…So it’s embedded in the language and the culture,” senior inside linebacker Shane Lee said. “It’s something we pride ourselves on and take seriously.”
Ahead of the Pac-12 title game, focusing on the ball and stripping drills were highly repeated during practice.
“It gives you confidence as a defense when you’re able to come up and make big plays like that and get the ball back to the offense,” Lee said. “When you’re able to come up and make a big play and make an impact like that is huge — especially in these tight and close games.”
It’s especially impactful when the ball comes back to an offense led by sophomore Caleb Williams. Against the Fighting Irish, Williams broke the single-season rushing record for a USC quarterback. With 18 passes completed on 22 attempts, four touchdowns of his own and a few scrambles totaling 35 yards, Williams again proved his capacity to carry his team to victory.
On the training field, his Heisman-worthy season is on everyone’s mind except his own.
“It hasn’t changed anything for me. I’m sticking to my same routine. I’m still trying to lead these guys because we have bigger goals in mind towards the end of the season,” Williams said. “I want to go win. I want to go win championships with the team that I’m on.”
Although Riley made it clear this is not a revenge game for the team, Williams still remembers the loss from more than a month ago and the awareness of adversity it brought to the team.
“After that game, we lost, and that was one of the main things that was being said in the locker room,” Williams said. “We have this adversity in our life right now that we just lost. And I know we didn’t want to lose, but we did lose, and a great book or story can’t be written without it.”
Williams may not like talking about his own performance, but his teammates remain impressed with him and have faith in what he will do in Las Vegas.
“It wasn’t that he was cocky,” redshirt senior offensive lineman Justin Dedich said. “He just kind of had this swagger about him, and it is just something that you can believe in and trust in and know that he’s gonna get the job done. But it’s just unbelievable the things he can do out there.”
With a defense that finished the season strong and a star quarterback playing at a high level, the Trojans very well could claim their first Pac-12 title since 2017.