Lincoln Riley is shaking off pneumonia but still sure USC can push for Pac-12 title

USC coach Lincoln Riley holds up both hands and calls a play from the sidelines during a game
USC Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley calls an offensive play from the sidelines during the game against Arizona at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum on Oct. 7 in Los Angeles. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The symptoms started setting in early last week, but at the time, Lincoln Riley tried to ignore them. In his more than 20 years coaching, he’d never missed so much as a practice. Considering how critical the week was to USC’s season, the coach was determined to push through. He rode a surge of adrenaline all the way into Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss to Utah.

Then, Riley said, “Sunday didn’t go too well.”

While his team was left reeling from its second straight loss, Riley was left to deal with the effects of pneumonia. The coach was forced to stay home sick Monday and Tuesday while his assistants filled in, an absence that Riley deemed “excruciating." In hindsight, he wondered if he should’ve taken the sickness more seriously the week before; though, deep down, he knew he’d probably do the same thing again.

Read more: Plaschke: In supposed breakthrough USC season, Lincoln Riley has been a bust

By Wednesday, Riley was back at practice. But speaking with reporters Thursday morning, it was clear he didn't have a clean bill of health.

“I'm definitely a lot better than I was,” Riley said, “but it's kind of a slow process working your way back. I've never had something like this before, so I'm kind of learning a little bit as I go."

Riley said he was glad USC wasn’t playing Thursday, but “hopeful” he’d be healthy enough to make the trip to Berkeley on Saturday, if he continued to progress at his current rate. If he’s forced to miss the game, it’s likely that receivers coach Dennis Simmons would step back in as acting head coach in his place, while offensive analyst Kliff Kingsbury is elevated as an extra assistant.

“If I'm limited in any way, we'll have plans in place and ready,” Riley said. “Definitely going to do my best to be ready to do my part for the team come Saturday."

Any serious contingency plan to save USC’s season must include a smooth victory Saturday at California. The Bears have lost three of their last four, but each of their three losses came against ranked teams (Utah, Oregon State and Washington). For USC, another loss would likely eliminate it from Pac-12 title contention.

As Riley sees it, USC is just as close right now to being in the hunt for the College Football Playoff semifinals.

Read more: USC vs. Utah takeaways: Lincoln Riley and the Trojans are feeling the heat

“It’s such a fine line in this game,” Riley said. “[Linebacker] Eric Gentry’s finger goes up another quarter of an inch, then we’re all sitting here feeling a lot different right now. You could’ve played all 100 snaps of the [Utah] game the exact same way and feel totally different and honestly, even going back to Notre Dame, I felt like a lot of times there in the third or fourth quarter, I felt like we were one or two of those plays away from being right there as well. That’s a fine line.”

USC was left standing on the wrong side of that line again this week. But Riley doesn’t think it’ll take much for the Trojans to get right. Even if some of the symptoms lately suggest otherwise.

“We do kind of feel like we’re a group that’s maybe one little spark away from really taking off,” he said. “We have to go do that. We have to make that happen.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.