ARLINGTON, Texas — The struggles of the USC defense this season came under a microscope in the aftermath of the Trojans’ loss to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game. The Utes were able to move the ball at will, not just due to play design but because the Trojans failed to tackle, time and again.
But as fans and analysts alike focused in on the performance, USC players bristled over a perceived lack of appreciation for the distance the defense has traveled since the 2021 season.
A year ago, the USC defense was among the worst in the history of the program. Every week, it seemed, another team set a record against the Trojans.
The 2022 USC defense had its struggles, of course, but there were also games like Oregon State and Notre Dame where it was the defense that won the day by forcing turnovers and creating tackles behind the line of scrimmage. It played a big part in USC winning 11 games in Lincoln Riley’s first season.
Given how quickly this year’s roster came together, learning a new scheme under defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, players are asking for perspective when it comes to evaluating the unit.
“We didn’t have a lot of time together. I think that’s the thing that people don’t realize. They’re trying to rush the process. Everything might not happen in a year,” Trojans linebacker Eric Gentry said. “We’re blessed to be in the position that we’re in. Other people may want to see us other places, but this is where we was. Because 4-8 was what it was last year and people aren’t grateful for that.”
Grinch, for his part, has expressed understanding for the frustration. He wants to match the championship-level expectations that come with coaching at a program like USC. Allowing 415.1 yards and 27.9 points per game does not meet those expectations.
And this week as USC prepares for the Cotton Bowl, Grinch pointed the finger at himself and his coaching staff, as he has often this year, for the unit’s shortcomings.
“If you’re not careful, you’ll default to being OK just being OK. So it pains me to say that that’s what we’ve been the bulk of the year. We’re still learning,” Grinch said. “You also got to make sure that you don’t fall into the excuse business as well. ‘Well, the call was good. My player couldn’t get it done.’ That’s a trap.”
But as criticism has mounted against Grinch the past month, players have instead looked inward.
“Coach Grinch is the best coach I’ve ever played for, hands down. That dude is a beast,” Trojans safety Bryson Shaw said. “It’s got nothing to do with him. We haven’t been executing. We haven’t been living up to his standards and our own standards.”
What coach and player do agree on, though, is how beneficial bowl practices have been for the defense.
USC watched the Utah film the Monday after the Pac-12 championship. The Trojans came away believing that a lack of communication and attention to detail led to the 24 missed tackles against the Utes.
Those areas have been a focus in practices. And with a month to prepare for Tulane, the Trojans have been able to look inward and go live in practice, not needing to preserve their bodies for an opponent every Saturday.
Grinch believes this month has yielded the biggest jump his defense has taken in his year at USC.
“It’s exciting. It really is,” the coordinator said. “Every single guy is at a different level.”
If USC can take that practice field improvement and apply it to the Cotton Bowl, it would go a long way toward building confidence as USC enters the offseason with championship ambitions for 2023.
“It’s promising because almost 99% of our defense is coming back. So it’s amazing to see not only that this is the first year, we got a whole other year. We’ve got more time with each other,” Gentry said. “It’s about trust. And that’s what Coach Grinch says a lot, trust that that person next to you is going to do their assignment.”
Added safety Max Williams, “You want to end on a really good note. We’ve done some good things this year, we’ve done some not good things this year. So leading up to next season, we want to make a statement. Come out, play hard, play fast.”