USC’s loss to Oregon exposes clear flaws in program-building up front

EUGENE, Ore. — In January, Lincoln Riley was on the sidelines at SoFi for the College Football Playoff championship game, getting a firsthand look at the vision he wanted to build for this USC program – one with size and strength and that could beat up teams up front similar to SEC powerhouses.
“Our guys don’t look like that,” Riley said, afterward. “They will soon.”
Two years in, though, they still don’t. A chasm still exists in size and talent for these Trojans up front on both sides of the ball. USC is unable to generate consistent pressure and has been sending Caleb Williams pinwheeling for two years. They don’t look like Georgia. They don’t even look like Oregon, their Pac-12 foe following them to the Big Ten, who won Saturday’s game in Eugene simply by being more physical than USC.
“I thought tonight, they played better on the line of scrimmage than we did,” Riley said postgame after a 36-27 loss that ended the Trojans’ conference championship hopes. “We threw some good shots in there, but there were still, certainly some depth issues that showed up.”
That statement, though, didn’t convey the half of it. The eye test was dismal, Ducks quarterback Bo Nix gallivanting about within a clean bubble and Williams running for his life for 60 minutes straight. The advanced stats were even worse.
Oregon generated 23 pressures on USC on Saturday, according to Pro Football Focus. USC generated three.
It was a result that only exacerbated clear realities and deficiencies in USC’s program-building since Riley and his regime started from relative scratch in 2021. They’ve stockpiled skill players, feeding a dynamic offense, but have recruited just four total four-star-or-better offensive and defensive linemen across the 2023 and ’24 recruiting classes. By contrast, Oregon has had 15.
Reasons for that are complex, and varied – Oregon has been more aggressive in utilizing NIL resources than USC, and the Trojans have often leaned more to the transfer portal for immediate help. But the Ducks, too, have put a specific premium on drawing and keeping talented size on the West Coast, where USC has taken a much more conservative approach.
“Obviously Coach Lanning coming from Georgia, the SEC,” said Pat Biondo, Oregon’s director of recruiting strategy. “You see the biggest difference sometimes is up front, on both sides of the ball, offensive and defensive line. … I feel like we really try to make an emphasis on both sides of the ball up front.”
Riley is somewhat handcuffed by both past and future, only able to mold so much in his image with holdovers from the Clay Helton era and a base of university collectives that aren’t working with endless funds in the NIL era. And comparatively, based on PFF stats dating to 2021, USC has improved in both consistency of offensive line play and pass rush under Riley.
“You don’t turn all that over from where this thing was, to all of a sudden being a big team, the offensive and defensive line – that’s not gonna happen that fast,” Riley said Saturday.
But success in utilizing the transfer portal hit an undeniable ceiling this year, with an at-times shaky offensive line with three new faces that was overwhelmed Saturday and a defensive front that started fast but gave Nix and Oregon no trouble. And Riley was clear, postgame, that more depth needed to be built up front for USC to continue growing from a disappointing season.
“That’s, a lot of times, in championship football, that’s the separating factor,” Riley said, when asked if he felt there needed to be a heavier emphasis on building talent on the lines moving forward. “We know that. And so there’s been a heavy emphasis on it. That’s why we’ve won the amount of games we’ve won the two years we’ve been here.”
“But of course, does it need to get better? Hell yeah. Is it gonna get better? Hell yeah.”

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