Lincoln Riley missed a second consecutive practice Tuesday because of an undisclosed illness. A USC spokesperson said the coach was recovering under doctor’s orders and described his status as “day-to-day”. USC would not comment on whether the illness was COVID-19.
It’s unclear whether his absence could stretch into the weekend, with USC slated to travel to Berkeley to face California on Saturday. But the coach’s absence comes at a critical time for the Trojans, whose season is threatening to unravel after losses to Notre Dame and Utah.
With Riley resting at home, USC receivers coach Dennis Simmons has been tasked with righting the ship, while Kliff Kingsbury, who has served as an offensive analyst, was expected to briefly step into an acting assistant role.
Simmons, who has coached alongside Riley for more than a decade, downplayed the importance of his role as acting coach when he spoke to reporters.
“It’s not like he’s gone forever,” Simmons said. “It’s just one of those deals where we’ve got an objective which is going to take place this Saturday afternoon at 1 o’clock. So that’s our main focus and what we’re looking forward to getting out [and] doing. So ... he’s set a great plan together, and we’re just following it until he returns.”
The last two weeks haven’t gone according to the coach’s plans. His offense has looked out of sorts, while USC’s defense came apart at the worst possible time last Saturday to allow a game-winning drive and last-second field goal from Utah. The consecutive losses all but eliminated USC from College Football Playoff contention. But just as Riley preached Saturday night, Simmons was sure to reiterate Tuesday how much remains ahead for the Trojans, who are 6-2 with four games remaining.
“I want to remind you guys, we’re 4-1 in conference right now,” Simmons said. “So we still have every opportunity to accomplish every goal that this team has set forth for us.”
Well, not every goal. No team has made the playoff with two losses.
Competing for a playoff spot was largely the expectation for USC in Riley’s second season, with a Heisman-winning quarterback back in the fold and a revamped defensive front. In hindsight, Riley suggested Saturday night, those sky-high expectations may have been too much for the Trojans.
“When you’re constantly trying to live up to those expectations, you can kinda fall away from maybe what put you there in that position in the first place,” Riley said. “And you can let disappointment of not playing perfect, or you know, when you won by 20 and you didn’t win by 40, and all the outside noise that comes with that, like, it can get to you. And I think at times, it’s fair to say it’s got to this team.”
Linebacker Mason Cobb said as much Tuesday.
“It’s hard when you’re hearing all this noise, and everyone is telling you, ‘You’re the best, you’re the best, you’re the best. You guys are so good,’ this and that,” Cobb said. “We have to take everything with a grain of salt and treat every team the same.”
The fall from that preseason hype has been steep — and swift. The question is whether USC, which is tied for second in the conference, can recover quickly enough to save its season.
That process starts Saturday against California, the only unranked opponent left on its slate. After that, the Trojans have two top-10 teams, Oregon and Washington, as well as rival UCLA waiting for them in November, two of which are on the road. To have any hope of salvaging a Pac-12 title, USC can’t afford to lose any of the four. That’s no small task.
Needless to say, now was not an ideal time to lose its coach to an illness. The fact that team morale was in tatters after Saturday night’s loss only makes matters more difficult.
Still, players assured Tuesday that they were keeping positive, even if their coach wasn’t there to hammer home that message.
“This team’s not down, I can tell you that,” safety Bryson Shaw said. “That hurt, that sucked, but this team’s not down and out. We feel like we’re just getting started. I mean, we really do. I mean, I’m not just saying that. We really feel like we’re just getting started.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.