College football review: Lincoln Riley nearly lost, but few could watch the USC drama

Southern California coach Lincoln Riley applauds during the first half.
USC coach Lincoln Riley applauds during the first half of the Trojans' 17-14 comeback win over Oregon State on Saturday night. (Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

Imagine being an Oklahoma Sooners fan. Imagine the heartbreak of losing at home to a Kansas State team that lost the previous week to a Tulane team that fell to Southern Mississippi on Saturday. Then, imagine seeing that USC — led by — led by your happily moved-on ex-coach Lincoln Riley — was losing to Oregon State in the fourth quarter, and feverishly searching for the remote.

Scroll, scroll, scroll, get to the sports channels in the 300s or 600s or 1800s, and yet, where is that traitor Riley? Hey, there’s Brigham Young-Wyoming (no thanks), but where are the seventh-ranked Trojans and their transfer portal all-stars?

They’re … nowhere? This couldn’t be right — one more slight for a scorned Sooners fan base that couldn't believe Riley would find it appealing to move his young family to Southern California to get out from under Bob Stoops’ shadow and do his own thing for the first time?

USC wide receiver Tahj Washington is brought down by Oregon State defensive back Jaydon Grant.
USC wide receiver Tahj Washington is brought down by Oregon State defensive back Jaydon Grant during the second half Saturday. (Amanda Loman / Associated Press)

But no, this scenario was real, because a matchup featuring a top-10 team and two unbeaten squads was relegated to the Pac-12 Network, which can hardly be seen in California much less Oklahoma, because of the conference’s inability to achieve the proper cable and satellite distribution deals during the last decade.

That isn’t new, of course. What’s new is USC, coached by Lincoln Freaking Riley and quarterbacked by Caleb Freaking Williams, was about to lose to a bunch of well-coached three-star recruits in Corvallis, Ore., and hundreds of thousands of fans across the country had to resort to refreshing Twitter or their game tracker of choice to keep up.

I had friends from L.A. to the Midwest texting me Saturday night, asking for help finding the game. Bad news for them: Yes, I paid extra for the sports package with the Pac-12 Network, but I don’t recall my password. Sorry!

“Now the game cast is broken,” one friend said. “Does Oregon State have a chance?”

“It’s kind of insane you can’t get a USC game on TV in this day and age,” another wrote. “I’d really like to watch! … The situation is an amusing kind of absurd. Just glad I’m not a Pac-12 fan. Say what you will about the Big Ten, but you can always get the games.”

The college football landscape had been burning all day. No. 25 Miami lost 45-31 to Middle Tennessee State and it wasn’t that close. No. 22 Texas, which some thought had turned legitimate under Steve Sarkisian after nearly beating Alabama in Week 2, lost 37-34 in overtime at Texas Tech. But the worst defeat of the day came in Norman, where No. 6 Oklahoma fell 41-34 to Kansas State.

For Sooners fans — and, to a lesser extent, the miserable collective of college football fans who don’t root for the Georgia Bulldogs but still sign up for the games — USC and Riley choking was going to be a major pick-me-up for Sunday morning’s early church-going crowd.

Look, part of the appeal of USC ever being “back” — whatever that means — is that the whole country can watch expectantly when the Trojans might fall tragically on their swords. Those of us who could watch Saturday night know the truth: These Trojans may be entertaining, inspiring, aggravating and, most important, relevant, but they are not “back” in the way USC fans would define it, which is national championship level. That is all the more reason, then, for the rest of the country to be able to tune in and revel in it when it’s all going haywire.

We’re going to have to wait 20 more regular-season games for USC to be back, at least from a national engagement perspective.

College football in 2022 is the quest for the best meme of the most tortured fan base. If USC had lost Saturday night, tech-savvy people would have been available to capture the perfect meme.

Luckily, a meme of a relieved Trojans fan after a 17-14 escape from Corvallis wasn’t going to go viral, anyway.

Oklahoma fans, simply put, just missed out on more heartbreak, something surely good for their souls.

Riley’s brain and Williams’ body looked out of sync all night long, but Alex Grinch’s defense — a punching bag in the Sooner State the last few years — saved the Trojans’ chance to make their first College Football Playoff appearance. It made for great TV.

In two years, when USC finds itself in a terrifying situation as a Big Ten member, those scorned Okies will be able to watch it in real time and pray for Riley’s comeuppance.

Then, whether the Trojans prevail or not, USC will actually be back.

Oregon makes a statement

Oregon quarterback Bo Nix looks for a receiver against Washington State on Saturday in Pullman, Wash.
Oregon quarterback Bo Nix looks for a receiver against Washington State on Saturday in Pullman, Wash. (Young Kwak / Associated Press)

As I reported when Saturday’s TV pairings were announced nearly two weeks ago, USC-Oregon State ended up on the Pac-12 Network because Fox and ESPN, which get to choose before the conference each week, wanted to guarantee themselves USC games later in the season.

The Trojans have to play three times on the Pac-12 Network, and, after Saturday, have checked that box twice.

Fox picked Saturday’s No. 15 Oregon at Washington State game and was greatly rewarded with a thriller. The upstart Cougars — watch out USC on Oct. 8! — led the Ducks 34-22 late in the fourth quarter before Oregon scored 22 points in 2 minutes, 48 seconds to steal the game, 44-41.

ESPN got way less lucky with its “After Dark” selection of Utah visiting Arizona State, playing its first game without the fired Herm Edwards as head coach. The Utes won 34-13.

Entering Week 5, it feels like Utah, USC, Oregon and Washington are the favorites for Las Vegas’ Pac-12 championship game (which will be broadcast on Fox, not the league network, thankfully). UCLA, Oregon State and Washington State are all capable of crashing the party, though.

Portal redemption

Kansas State quarterback Adrian Martinez celebrates scoring a touchdown against Oklahoma.
Kansas State quarterback Adrian Martinez celebrates scoring a touchdown against Oklahoma on Saturday in Norman, Okla. (Nate Billings / Associated Press)

There are plenty of fair critiques of the NCAA transfer portal, but it’s definitely good for competitive balance.

And it’s good for a lot of kids who have put in a lot of sweat equity for one school but have hit a roadblock for whatever reason and could excel in a different situation.

Kansas State quarterback Adrian Martinez, a Nebraska transfer, and Oregon quarterback Bo Nix, an Auburn transfer, were the portal poster children on Saturday.

Martinez rushed for 148 yards and four touchdowns and passed for 234 yards and a score to lead the Wildcats to victory in Norman. Think he was going to do that with woeful Nebraska this season? The Cornhuskers, who went 3-9 last year, were happy to replace him with a couple of transfer quarterbacks.

Nix, a former five-star recruit, threw for a career-high 428 yards and three touchdowns to help the Ducks make it out of Pullman alive.

The real McCoy

Tennessee wide receiver Bru McCoy lines up and runs on the field.
Tennessee receiver Bru McCoy is thriving this season after transferring from USC. (John Amis / Associated Press)

Tennessee beat Florida for the first time since 2016 to improve to 4-0 on the year and set itself up for a move into the top 10.

The Volunteers could not have done it without Bru McCoy, the former Santa Ana Mater Dei star who went to USC with massive expectations but was kept off the field due to a series of injuries and a USC Title IX investigation into an off-field incident with his ex-girlfriend.

On Saturday, McCoy caught five passes for 102 yards and a touchdown. He is another portal success story and will have a chance to be a part of a special season in Knoxville.

Future Big Ten rankings

1. Ohio State

2. Michigan

3. Penn State (up 1)

4. USC (down 1)

5. Minnesota

6. UCLA (up 3)

7. Maryland (up 1)

8. Wisconsin (down 2)

9. Iowa (up 3)

10. Purdue

11. Illinois (up 3)

12. Michigan State (down 5)

13. Rutgers (down 2)

14. Indiana (down 1)

15. Northwestern

16. Nebraska

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.