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Lincoln Riley is changing the USC football culture

The one-sided victories against overwhelmed opponents were the easy part.

Walloping Rice, Stanford, and Fresno State was somewhat expected considering the talent Lincoln Riley had accumulated and inherited. Caleb Williams and co. were expected to win those games with relative ease.

Saturday night was different. Saturday night was revealing. Saturday night’s gutsy 17-14 victory over the much-improved and previously undefeated Oregon State showed the country — at least the part of it that can access the Pac-12 Network — these Trojans are different from their recent predecessors.

They were beaten up on the road, unable to generate much against a fierce defense. Williams was off, his skilled receivers struggling to create separation. USC trailed in the fourth quarter for the first time this season. Only 4:41 remained.

That’s when Williams and USC displayed grit. Showed heart and determination. Refused to lose. On fourth-and-6 from his own 43-yard-line, Williams took off. He didn’t have the first down initially, but he was pushed forward by a few offensive linemen for the first down. Five plays later, the Heisman Trophy candidate threw a dart down the right sideline for Jordan Addison, one of the many elite transfers Riley brought in, and suddenly, USC was not only ahead, but ahead to stay.

USC head coach Lincoln Riley applauds during a win over Oregon State on Sept. 24, 2022.
USC head coach Lincoln Riley applauds during a win over Oregon State on Sept. 24, 2022.

The Trojans picked off Oregon State quarterback Chance Nolan for a fourth time, their 14th takeaway on the season without a turnover. They were on their way to 4-0 for the second time since 2018, making good so far on their considerable preseason hype. There’s no reason USC shouldn’t be 6-0 heading into an Oct. 15 showdown at Utah, by far the toughest remaining game on their schedule, as the Utes have looked the part after that season-opening loss at Florida.

Four games into Riley’s tenure, USC is in the early College Football Playoff picture. It didn’t play well for large segments of Saturday night. The offense was stagnant, Williams was off target and the run defense at times struggled. But with the game on the line, the Trojans made winning plays.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) throws a pass against Oregon State on Sept. 24, 2022.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams (13) throws a pass against Oregon State on Sept. 24, 2022.

Victories like these create a winning culture. USC showed it is more than just a collection of talent. That has rarely been the case over the last decade. This win said more about Riley’s team than the three pretty wins that preceded it.

Play to win

It was fourth-and-5 at the Clemson 48-yard-line in a tie game. Thirty-nine seconds remained. Wake Forest had spent the majority of the afternoon showing coach Dave Clawson this shouldn’t have even been a decision.

Quarterback Sam Hartman was brilliant. The Demon Deacons’ defense was a sieve, unable to stop Clemson and quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. Game on the line as the underdog at home against the more talented team, go for the win. Coach to win the game, as opposed to not losing it. Put the game in your star quarterback’s hands.

Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson looks on during the team's loss to Clemson on Sept. 24, 2022.
Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson looks on during the team’s loss to Clemson on Sept. 24, 2022.
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It would’ve been daring. It would’ve been risky. And it may have very well led to victory. Instead, Clawson punted and Clemson predictably prevailed in double overtime, beating Wake Forest for the 15th consecutive time. Coaching conservatively rarely pays off.

Seminole moment?

Could the tide be turning in Tallahassee? Is Florida State actually relevant? The early signs point in that very direction.

The win over LSU appears to have staying power now that the Tigers have won three straight games in convincing fashion. The Seminoles found a way to win at Louisville and manhandled Boston College on Saturday.

While neither of those teams is anywhere close to ACC contenders, those are games Florida State lost in past years. Remember, this program hasn’t been 4-0 since 2015, the last time it won 10 games.

We’ll learn much more about coach Mike Norvell’s team in the next three weeks, when it faces Wake Forest, N.C. State, and Clemson. Two of those games are at home, chances for a real statement to be made. Florida State has begun to generate some momentum. That certainly beats the last four years of losing, irrelevant football.

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