Lincoln Riley now 0-3 in bowl games with Heisman winner

Jan 2, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; USC Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley reacts before the game against the Tulane Green Wave in the 2023 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 2, 2023; Arlington, Texas, USA; USC Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley reacts before the game against the Tulane Green Wave in the 2023 Cotton Bowl at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports /

That roar of satisfaction you could hear coming out of Norman, Oklahoma, around 4 p.m. on Monday was in response to the way USC ended its first season under head coach Lincoln Riley.

Tulane, champions of the Group of Five American Athletic Conference, came from 15 points down late in the fourth quarter to upset 10th-ranked USC 46-45 in the 2023 Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic.

USC dominated this game statistically with Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams connecting time after time on chunk plays downfield as well as short screen passes gaining 10 to 15 yards after catch.

The Trojans led by two touchdowns at multiple points in the game, but it was a typical Lincoln Riley defensive performance — or, more accurately, a defense engineered and game-planned by Alex Grinch — that led to USC’s ultimate downfall in the game.

For those who did not see or listen to the game, here is dramatic series of events that transpired in the late going:

  • With 4:30 remaining in the game, USC concluded an 11-play, 46-yard drive that consumed nearly six and a half minutes of the fourth quarter with a 43-yard field goal that extended the Trojans’ lead to 45-30.
  • It took Tulane less than 30 seconds to respond with a touchdown of its own in the ensuing possession, the big play coming on a 59-yard pass from quarterback Michael Pratt to Deuce Watts that set the Green Wave up at the USC four-yard line. Tyjae Speers ran it in from there to cut the USC margin to eight points at 45-37.
  • On the Tulane kickoff, USC’s Mario Williams, who was recruited by and played at Oklahoma last season, bobbled the kick, finally covering it at the one-yard line and pinning the Trojans right up against their own goal line. On first down, Austin Jones was stopped at the line of scrimmage for no gain. On the next play, Caleb Williams, who had alluded the pass rush all afternoon, was tackled in the end zone for a safety. At that point, the momentum in this game took a drastic turn.
  • Because of the rules governing a safety, USC was forced to kickoff to Tulane from its own 20-yard line, affording the Green Wave a shorter field and an opportunity to win the game.
  • It wasn’t easy, but Tulane managed to get the job done, scoring the game-tying touchdown with :09 remaining on a six-yard pass from Pratt to Alex Bauman. At first, the pass was ruled incomplete when it appeared the catch was bobbled and hit the ground, but video review showed that Bauman had cradled the ball and it had not touched the ground. As a result, the call on the field was overturned. The extra point was good, and just like that what minutes before appeared to be a sure victory turned into a nightmarish defeat for USC.
  • USC still had nine seconds and two timeouts to try to at least get into field goal range. Caleb Williams’ pass on first down fell incomplete. That left two seconds on the clock. The last-ditch effort with a sequence of laterals as the clocked showed triple zeros ended some 70 yards from the end zone.

A dramatic finish for sure and a crushing loss for the guys in burgundy and gold that didn’t draw many tears in Sooner Nation.

Lincoln Riley is now 0-3 in postseason games with a Heisman-winning quarterback on his team and just 1-4 in postseason bowl or playoff games as a head coach. Four of those postseason appearances were at Oklahoma. The one win came against Florida in the 2020 Cotton Bowl Classic. As many as 17 Florida players were unavailable for the game either because of opting out or other reasons, and the No. 8-ranked Sooners romped to a 55-20 victory.

Riley and Grinch have probably seen all they care to see of Tulane for a while. Oklahoma opened the season a year ago against the Green Wave and had to withstand a 13-point fourth-quarter comeback that fell just short as the Sooners survived with a 40-35 victory. Tulane, with Michael Pratt also at quarterback in that game, rolled up nearly 400 yards of offense on Grinch’s OU defense.

The USC offense totaled 594 yards against Tulane, 462 of that total through the air as Williams completed 37 of 52 passes with five touchdowns and one interception. The Trojans ran 84 plays to 52 by Tulane and possessed the ball nearly 20 minutes longer than the Green Wave (39:49 to 20:11). USC also was extraordinarily efficient in late downs, converting 11 of 15 third downs and both of its fourth-down tries.

You look at the Trojans’ game stats and you have to wonder how they could possibly lose this game. The problem, as it consistently has been with teams led by the offensive-minded Riley, is the USC defense gave up 539 yards of offense to Tulane, including 305 on the ground. The defense allowed 32 second-half points and failed to get stops on two critical fourth-down plays on Tulane’s game-winning touchdown drive in the closing minutes of the game.

The last thing Sooner fans wanted to have to endure after suffering through an uncharacteristic Oklahoma losing season was to see their former coach’s new team make it to the College Football Playoff. Check that one off the list thanks to Utah winning the Pac-12 Championship.

We did witness another Oklahoma quarterback win the Heisman (the fifth this century, plus two runners-up), only he wasn’t the Sooner quarterback when he won the award. I guess we can chalk that up as a 50/50 win, given he was recruited and signed first by OU as part of the Sooners’ 2021 class.

The final straw would have been Riley and the Trojans winning their Cotton Bowl encounter against Tulane. For a long while, it appeared it would be a decisive USC victory. But then a green tidal wave rolled in and destroyed everything Riley’s gridiron warriors had worked for over the previous 55 minutes of game time. Check that one off, too.

It was bad enough that the Cheez-It Bowl loss to Florida State left Oklahoma football with a sub-.500 record for the first time in 24 seasons, but to have to witness USC getting to the College Football Playoff in Riley’s first season and, on top of that, see Caleb Williams win the Heisman would have been double jeopardy and just too much for Sooner fans to have to take in.

One of these days, perhaps the man now known in the Sooner state by simply the single-word “Muleshue” will finally figure out that all offense and no defense doesn’t win championships. One good thing to come out Riley’s abrupt exit from Norman is that Oklahoma now has the influence and head-coach appeal to recruit and sign elite defensive talent.

I leave you with two parting uplifting anecdotes to welcome in the new year:

  • Bob Stoops now has more bowl wins in the last two years than Lincoln Riley, and Stoops is retired.
  • Lincoln Riley fails to make it out of the first game in four College Football Playoff appearances. Meanwhile, brother Garrett is in the national championship game in his first season as offensive coordinator at TCU.