USC's Lincoln Riley 'proud' as Trojans grind out win over Oregon State

CORVALLIS, Ore. -- If the empty cement bleachers on the opposite side of Oregon State's massive student section could have been filled, they would have been bleeding orange too. And yet, the unfinished side of Reser Stadium didn't prevent the sold-out crowd from creating what USC coach Lincoln Riley called one of the toughest, most unique atmospheres he has ever been a part of.

The Beavers faithful on hand nearly witnessed the Trojans' fourth straight loss as a ranked team in Corvallis. Instead, Riley's team outlasted Oregon State 17-14 thanks to a late touchdown drive and four interceptions by the defense, giving the Trojans' new coach his first signature win.

"I'm probably more proud of this win than the previous three," Riley said. "We found a way, and it feels damn good."

The offensive juggernaut that USC (4-0) had shown itself to be through the first three games, scoring more than 40 points in each of them, was nowhere to be found Saturday night. Quarterback Caleb Williams looked out of rhythm for most of the contest, completing only 16 of his 36 pass attempts for just 180 yards. The offense, as a whole, averaged less than 5 yards per play.

"I've got to be better for the offense," Riley said. "We've got to make routine plays, and we've obviously got a lot of things we've got to correct and a lot to work on."

But when it mattered most, Williams and the offense stitched together an 11-play, 84-yard touchdown drive that included a miraculous fourth-down push of Williams by the offensive line as well as what has quickly become the Trojans' most potent connection: Williams to Biletnikoff Award winner Jordan Addison for six.

Before the go-ahead touchdown, Addison's performance had been emblematic of the team's struggles. As Williams scrambled to stay upright all night, Addison had only three targets.

"When everything's rolling ... I mean, that's awesome. And obviously, we'd love for that to happen every week, but that's football," Riley said. "It just doesn't happen like that all the time. You know, how many times do you see a really good team go down and get upset or beat in a tougher atmosphere like tonight? I mean it happens all the time. That's where you separate yourself from really great teams and find a way no matter what the circumstances, and we found a way to do that."

Williams' dart to Addison was the intended result of something Riley said he and Williams worked on this offseason: making an impact in games where he finds himself struggling. Riley said postgame that he reminded Williams he had been in games like this when he was younger but that he could still have the final word.

"You didn't for one second think that he was somewhere else or his mentality was somewhere else," USC running back Travis Dye said of Williams during the final drive. "You knew he was going to get it done."

Williams and Addison rightfully attracted a healthy portion of the offseason hype around USC, but the past three games have shown that Dye is just as crucial to the Trojans' offense. Dye, who transferred from Oregon, has now rushed for 100 or more yards in three straight games. When USC's offense has stumbled, its most effective antidote has been handing the ball off to Dye, who manufactured two first downs with his legs on Saturday's game-winning drive.

With 1:07 left in the game, USC still needed a stop. Fittingly, the Trojans defense did what it has been doing all season long: take the ball away. On third down with less than a minute left, linebacker Eric Gentry tipped Beavers quarterback Chance Nolan's pass, and the ball landed in Max Williams' arms for the Trojans' fourth interception of the night -- this one a walk-off.

"The four turnovers, the huge stops, closing the game -- you can't say enough about how we played defensively," Riley said. "You just can't."

For all the talk of USC's high-powered offense, Saturday's game was a stage fitting for a defense that has made turnovers a priority. Alex Grinch's unit now has 14 takeaways in four tilts, tied for the most by an FBS team through four games in the past 15 years.

"We say takeaways equals victories because they do," Grinch said after the game.

On a night when everything seemed to be going against USC, it was the defense that turned the tide and kept the Trojans undefeated.

"You need games like that to show who you are as a team," USC linebacker Shane Lee said. "We haven't been put in any situation like that before.

"Some teams might lose hope, but we still believed and pushed through."