The wait was worth it.
After toiling in the background for three seasons, dutifully working his way up from third-string while transfers came and went at his position, USC quarterback Miller Moss shined in his first career start, throwing for 372 yards and six touchdowns on 23-of-33 passing in USC’s 42-28 victory over No. 15 Louisville in the Holiday Bowl on Wednesday at Petco Park.
The redshirt sophomore’s touchdowns were the most ever thrown by a USC quarterback in his debut. As the final seconds ticked off, a parade of teammates enveloped Moss in celebratory slaps and hugs.
One hug wasn’t enough for Caleb Williams. The Heisman Trophy winner who watched the game from the sideline after opting out of the bowl game, wrapped Moss in a long embrace and when the signal-callers broke and slapped hands twice, Williams pulled him in again.
Williams’ arrival two seasons ago kept Moss hidden in the shadows. But the Bishop Alemany alumnus stuck with his childhood team. Even when the previous coaches recruited other players at his position in high school, when Lincoln Riley came and when Williams followed, Moss stayed. On Wednesday, he got to savor his decision and celebrate the power of the program he long believed in.
“It’s a good, positive moment,” said Moss, who was named the Holiday Bowl’s offensive most valuable player. “I still think more so for the team than for me personally. These six weeks weren’t about any individual, they were about us and the people that wanted to be here and wanted to play this game and wanted to come together.”
Without roughly 20 players because of opt outs and transfers who left the team since an embarrassing loss to UCLA on Nov. 18, USC (8-5) won its first bowl game since 2017 and ended a three-game losing streak.
At first, it looked like the hangover stretched through the six-week break. The Trojans fell behind 7-0. Louisville (10-4) moved the ball easily on the undermanned defense. Denis Lynch shanked a 39-yard field goal.
It took a game-changing play from one of USC’s longest-tenured players to change the tide.
Redshirt senior safety Max Williams, playing in his final college game, sacked Louisville quarterback Jack Plummer and forced a fumble that Solomon Byrd recovered to set the Trojans up inside the red zone. Moss threw a 17-yard touchdown pass to Tahj Washington three plays later, sparking four consecutive touchdown drives for the Trojans.
The stretch, which included a blocked punt by Kyron Hudson that put the Trojans at the Louisville 18-yard line, was the best complimentary football the Trojans have played since at least the first half against Colorado on Sept. 30.
Fans gave the Trojans a standing ovation as the team ran into the locker room with a 28-14 lead and it felt appropriate that the USC marching band opened its halftime performance with Rihanna’s “Where Have You Been.” Trojan fans were asking that question for months.
USC limped into the bowl game with five losses in its last six games. With players flocking to the transfer portal or opting out of the bowl, energy surrounding the program appeared to dip. But to those who stayed inside Heritage Hall, the six weeks of bowl preparation were “the most fun, for me personally, playing football my whole life,” safety Bryson Shaw said.
“Honestly, all the years and wins and stuff, this was as fun a win as I can remember as a head coach,” said Riley, who got a bucket of egg nog dumped on his head after the trophy ceremony. “Just with all the changes, all the back and forth, six weeks, 20-plus guys that didn’t play in this game for different reasons. We could have come into this game not caring about it. … I thought the team leadership in this game was as strong as it was the entire year. I thought that was a big reason why the guys played the way we did.”
Moss showed his calm leadership in the third quarter by responding to a crushing interception with an 11-play, 53-yard touchdown drive. USC had a chance for a commanding 21-point lead, but Quincy Riley jumped in front of Moss’ pass at the goal line and returned it 61 yards. The Cardinals scored on a one-yard touchdown run by Isaac Guerendo to complete a 14-point swing.
“One-hundred percent my fault on that swing,” Moss said. “Turning the ball over in the red zone is not winning football, but I also had the mindset that I’m not going to allow my mistake to be the reason we don’t win this game.”
The Trojans answered with a touchdown of their own as freshman receiver Ja’Kobi Lane caught a 12-yard pass, his second of the game. He finished with 60 yards on three catches as Washington, in his final game before going to the pros, led USC with 99 yards on seven catches. He reached 1,062 yards for the season and caught Moss’ first two touchdowns of the quarterback’s record-setting performance.
Nothing about Moss’ play surprised his teammates. They have watched him sling passes across the practice field for years, even if others didn’t get to see it on game days.
“He’s a cool, calm, collected guy,” Shaw said. “He’s a killer, man, and he’s got ice cold veins.”
Moss saved his best for his final throw, dropping a pinpoint perfect 44-yard pass to Duce Robinson in the fourth quarter for his sixth and final touchdown. Moss looked toward the crowd with arms extended wide, soaking in his long-awaited time in the spotlight.