LOS ANGELES – The assumption all along was that USC would routinely be lighting up scoreboards this fall, thanks to the combination of scheme and offensive talent that Lincoln Riley had assembled. But who knew that when Riley’s Rapid Rebuild had its grand opening, the Trojans’ defense would be contributing so much to the scoring.
Maybe Alex Grinch envisioned it. His concept, as the defensive coordinator that joined Riley in the odyssey from Norman, Okla. to Los Angeles, is that defensive success is predicated on takeaways. And did the Trojans ever star in that department in Saturday’s 66-14 blitz of Rice at the Coliseum.
USC tied a school record with three pick-sixes, with Calen Bullock (93-yard return), Shane Lee (40 yards) and Ralen Goforth (45) all returning interceptions for touchdowns. Xamarion Gordon also picked off a pass at the Rice 34 in the third quarter that led to a Trojan touchdown.
Elegant? Not always. Luke McCaffrey bobbled the fourth-down from the Rice 12 that Bullock gobbled up and returned for a 28-7 second-quarter lead. Intended receiver Bradley Rozner tipped a TJ McMahon pass early in the third quarter into Lee’s grasp to make it 38-14. Three plays later, McMahon evaded one tackler but was about to get sacked anyway when he threw it right to Goforth, to make it 45-14.
But isn’t that part of the job? Be in the right place at the right time.
“We talked about tips, overthrows, and part of the message is that every single one of them included effort, effort on multiple guys’ parts,” Grinch said. “It’s one thing to tip a football, it’s another thing to come down with it. And then it’s a whole another thing to obviously go score with it. So if it becomes a habit I’ll be really, really excited. But we know how rare it is.”
It’s safe to say that a good number of those who played for Clay Helton’s Trojans weren’t deemed valuable enough to remain with the new regime, but two of Saturday’s heroes definitely were. Bullock is a sophomore defensive back from Muir High in Pasadena who was a freshman All-America selection. Goforth is a senior linebacker from St. John Bosco who was second on last year’s team in tackles.
“Calen, he’s one of those guys that I can see really having a great future,” Goforth said. “You can see it in practice, his work ethic. Not many guys can really cover an entire field the way he can. You know he can run sideline to sideline. Just when you think it’s open over here, just because you see him over there, he can get over there and catch the ball. That is rare to see somebody like that.”
Five plays before that 93-yard return, Bullock ran down Cameron Montgomery at the USC 20 after Montgomery had taken a pitch and broken for 55 yards. So you can say Bullock effectively saved two touchdowns in one drive.
“We talk about being an effort-based defense,” Grinch said. “And the minute I say effort someone wants to ask a question about scheme. The minute you talk about effort someone else wants to talk about talent and personnel. But I’m going to keep trumpeting this, and I think you’re talking about a guy that the sky’s the limit for Calen.
“I mean, he’s an elite dude and I’m thrilled to have a chance to coach him, but he doesn’t make either of those plays if he doesn’t play with tremendous effort. We’re sometimes warped as coaches, but … it is indicative one of everything that we’re preaching. It’s one thing to say it, but it’s another thing that, you know, he’s the one who has to go chase him down. We don’t. So give him a lot of credit.”
This is how important takeaways are to the Trojans:
“Coach Grinch, he gave us a stat: 24 takeaways in the season,” Goforth said. “You know, that’s the bare minimum for us. that’s our goal, 24-plus takeaways by the end of the season.
“We want to play championship ball. You have to be able to take the ball away and get it back to our offense and have them do what they do, with the amazing weapons we have on that side of the ball. So that’s a big emphasis that we have in practice. We don’t have like a takeaway segment. Every team rep, every scout rep we do is our takeaway segment. We practice punching the ball out in every scout period, every team run, everything.”
It may not be sustainable; after all, the teams the Trojans will be playing in future weeks should be a lot better than Rice. But right now they’re on a pace for 48 takeaways.
“Most def,” Goforth said with a grin.
The takeaways may have had another purpose. This was a highly anticipated moment, the first game with an essentially new cast, a new coaching staff, and sky-high hopes for those who care about the Trojans. First game jittters and uncertainty would have been absolutely natural.
“You know, it’s it’s theory in a lot of ways up until this point,” Grinch said. “And obviously you get some real world stuff in practice. But there’s nothing like a game, and so it’s very meaningful. We’ve made a lot of sacrifices and a lot has been done over the last eight months, family- wise and for the men and the players, including a lot of new faces out there that, you know, came out here just wanting to be part of USC football. And so this was our first at-bat.”
Lee, one of those new faces as a transfer linebacker from Alabama, said just getting on the field in game conditions was critical.
“This is the first day we got to step on the field against an opponent, someone that wasn’t the same color (jersey) as us,” he said. “So it was really good for us to be able to communicate, feel what it’s like to be on the field next to each other in a real situation and be able to execute.”
And take the ball away as often as possible.