LOS ANGELES — The expectations of Lincoln Riley are so immense, not even his first spring game as the head football coach at Southern California was immune from them.
David Carrillo, who wore a trojan helmet to the game, said he was first in line at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum at 7 a.m. Saturday – five hours before kickoff.
“Because I anticipated it being sold out,” Carrillo, 42, told USA TODAY Sports. “I was like, ‘It’s a new Lincoln Riley era. A bunch of players transferring in. It’s a new beginning pretty much.’ “
Riley might turn USC into “the mecca of college football,” as he had promised he would at his introductory news conference. He might win multiple national titles along the way, too, like Pete Carroll did for the Trojans almost two decades ago.
But a sellout crowd for the spring game, well…
The USC faithful on Saturday were about 44,000 fans shy of a packed house. The official attendance was 33,427, despite the free tickets, sunny skies and a fan fest with giveaways such as 15,000 posters and 10,000 shirts.
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ESPN televised the game, and among the highlights: Quarterback followed Caleb Williams, who Riley from Oklahoma to USC, completed his first nine passes, including two for touchdowns to fellow Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams.
“Hopefully we get to pack it out really soon,” Caleb Williams said of the stadium. “But it was awesome to come out here and get in front of a couple of fans and have ESPN and all of that.”
Riley, who inherited a team that finished 4-8 last season and a fan base desperate for hope, said, “Today was a great example of the progress that’s been made in a really short time. … We’re not there yet. We ‘ve got a long ways to go. But we have made a ton of progress in the last four and a half months.”
The postgame press conference also was a chance to see how Riley might handle unfulfilled expectations, as farfetched as they may be – such as a sellout crowd for a spring game.
“They told me that’s the highest attendance for a spring game in the history of this program, and last time I checked they’ve been playing football around here for a few years,” he said.
For the record, the crowd of 33,427 at the Coliseum was not officially the biggest for a USC spring game, but rather the most since “at least the late 1990s” based on available records, according to the USC’s sports information department.
USC’s last pre-pandemic spring game drew an estimated crowd of 2,000, the Los Angeles Times reported.
For what it’s worth, this year USC had a bigger spring game crowd than did Alabama (31,077) and Auburn (29,346), and maybe everything isn’t measurable.
“If you’re in this city and you don’t feel momentum about this program,” Riley said, “you’re not paying attention.”
In the almost five months since USC hired Riley, he has begun the crucial work of rebuilding – recruiting. Though he got a late start with high school prospects, he has taken full advantage of the transfer portal by signing 13 players.
Riley said he’ll sign yet more transfers in time to strengthen the roster before USC’s season opener against Rice Sept. 3 at the Coliseum.
The current haul includes Oregon transfer Travis Dye, a running back who last season led the Pac-12 with 1,673 all-purpose yards; Oklahoma transfer Mario Williams, a wide receiver who as a freshman at Oklahoma last season caught 35 passes for 380 yards and four touchdowns; and Alabama transfer Shane Hall, a linebacker who made 13 starts in three seasons Alabama and was a freshman All-America.
But the gem of the class is Williams, who last year at Oklahoma threw for 1,9 yards and 21 touchs with four interceptions while12 down 64.5 percent of his passes. He also rushed for 442 yards and six touchdowns.
“Has he improved? Yes,” Riley said. “Like everybody else on this roster, I think he has. He’s taken steps.
“He’s getting better. He’s getting more comfortable. He’s becoming a more seasoned, experienced quarterback.”
The results? In what amounted to one half of football, USC’s offense beat USC’s defense 34-30 after the defense was staked to a 21-0 lead and earned three points for each of its three fourth-down stops.
Riley said he liked much of what he saw Saturday, but spoke most passionately about the collective effort made by his team “to build a culture and to build a kind of standard within our program that we all believe in.”
In part, the culture requires thick skin. Andrew Vorhees, a senior offensive lineman, said of Riley: “He’s not afraid to hurt anybody’s feelings. He’s not afraid to hold anybody accountability.”
Williams, who played for Riley at Oklahoma last season, offered some insight on how accountability works within Riley’s program. Williams suggested it hinges on player leadership and the team leaders are meeting about once a week.
“One of the biggest things is that elite teams are led by the players, held accountable by the players,” he said. “Good teams, they’re led by the coaches and held accountable by the coaches. And poor teams, there’s no one else there.
“We’ve been trying to be the elite team, so we’ve been having a lot of players step up into leadership roles, be more commanding, have a voice. But to have that, you have to work and when you work hard You build loyalty, and you build trust, and then you have those moments where you can speak up and hold your teammates accountable.”
Moss, the backup quarterback who endured last season at USC, wanted to share something.
“I don’t think we lacked the players and the personalities within the locker room to have good leadership,” he said. “I just think there wasn’t a form that fostered leadership, and I think coach Riley and his staff coming in, we’ve been given a playbook, so to speak, on how to do that.”
After the press conference was over, David Carrillo, still wearing his trojan helmet, was on the field at the Coliseum. He said he is a Southern California native and traveled to from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico to the game.
“I anticipated it being sold out, but it’s LA,” he said. “You’re only going to get so many people out and we understand it’s just a spring game, too. But overall, I was pretty enthused about the size of the crowd and the energy that everybody had for the game.
“It’s just a breath of fresh air to have USC starting to feel like it’s starting to get back to where it should be.”
Riley might have been speaking for the fans – the ones who came and the ones who didn’t – when he said, “I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t starting to think ahead a little bit to what it will feel like in the fall when it’s packed.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lincoln Riley, USC generates big expectations – even at spring game