Lincoln Riley's challenge against Arizona State: winning the season, not just a game


The USC Trojans are huge favorites over Arizona State, and they should be. Arizona State lost at home to Eastern Michigan and then lost by 21 at home to Utah. The Sun Devils are a mess of a team under an interim head coach with a depleted roster. They lost multiple star players in the transfer portal, one of them being Eric Gentry, who has become USC's defensive MVP through one month of the season. Their offensive and defensive lines are the weaker parts of their roster, which makes them a team which is unlikely to hurt USC.

The Trojans should not sweat this game. This contest is very unlikely to be close in the fourth quarter. Winning this game should not be a huge challenge, or any sort of challenge, for USC.

This game does, however, present a challenge to Lincoln Riley: Can he coach this game as part of a longer season and not as a one-game moment following a subpar performance from him and his offense?

After a bad game, any competitor naturally wants to fix everything.

USC couldn't throw well against Oregon State, so it's a natural instinct to want to fix the passing game. USC didn't score a lot against Oregon State, so it's human nature to want to see the Trojans score 40 or 50 points. USC didn't hit deep downfield passes against Oregon State, so it's normal to want to hit 60-yard passes against Arizona State and feel powerful on offense again.

Yet, Lincoln Riley can't coach that way.

Washington State comes after the ASU game on Oct. 8. Then comes Utah on Oct. 15. Those are important and challenging games.

Arizona State, coming right after the draining Oregon State game, is a time for USC to not chase style points or big numbers. That shouldn't be necessary.

This is not an idle week for USC, but playing ASU is close to an idle week. It's an easy opponent which shouldn't require too much stress or game pressure.

This is a time for Riley to focus less on fixing the passing game, and more on getting players healthy for Washington State and Utah. He needs to worry less about scoring tons of points and recapturing the beautiful offense we saw earlier in the season. We all want to see that every week, but against Arizona State, the much bigger priority is to manage his roster, make the game minimally taxing, and reduce the odds that key offensive players will be hurt.

Riley generally wants to lengthen a game, give his offense more possessions, and be aggressive with his offense. This is a time to shorten the game, reduce possessions, and shepherd a banged-up offensive line through 60 minutes with minimal strain. This means fewer passes - not as a tactic to beat Arizona State, but as a way of reducing the burden on his O-line heading into the Washington State-Utah double-stack of games which will be extremely important (and a lot more difficult than Arizona State).

If USC scores just 30 points and cruises to an unimpressive 30-13 win, it will be easy for fans to think the team and the offense are not in a good place. The truth of the matter is that after the draining Oregon State game, playing ASU gives USC a chance to downshift and not go full throttle.

The team needs that. It doesn't need to chase the style points this week.

Get everyone healthy. Do just enough to win without too much drama or difficulty. Then prepare for Washington State with a full playbook and a much healthier offensive line.

Get a 17-point lead. Then put in Mason Murphy in place of Bobby Haskins at left tackle and spend the second half handing the ball off.

It's not Lincoln Riley's job to entertain fans every week. It's his job to win Pac-12 championships. The big goal is the season, not one game against a really bad opponent.

Riley has to resist the temptation to look good each week, and focus on the goal of managing this roster for a 12-game grind.


Pac-12 Notebook: Should USC fans root for Washington or UCLA this Friday (and much more)


Story originally appeared on Trojans Wire


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