USC concerned about defense after win over Cal: 3 takeaways

View the original article to see embedded media.

LOS ANGELES – USC defeated Cal 41-35 at home Saturday night, but the energy in the locker room after the game was closer to that of a loss.

The Trojans improved to 8-1, but there was a lot of frustration stemming from USC’s inability to put the game away in the fourth quarter.

“It’s very frustrating on the defensive side because like you said, put away games. That’s what we work on in practice and two-minute drills. We know we’re supposed to put the game away,” USC safety Calen Bullock said.


The Trojans gave up 469 yards to a Cal team that averages less than 400 yards per game. Though they walked away with the win, there’s a lot of room for improvement. 

Here are three takeaways from USC’s win over Cal:


Ten weeks into the season and 11 months into Lincoln Riley’s (and Alex Grinch’s) USC coaching tenure, there are so many problems, particularly defensively, that have yet to be fixed.

Grinch’s response to the Trojans’ defensive shortcomings was less than convincing.

“We’re 10 weeks into the season, which you know, as soon as I say that, I want to vomit. Some of the issues … I don’t know if some of these things we can fix in 48 hours, 72 hours,” Grinch said. “You know we had 11 months to do a lot of things around here, and we’ve got five days to get it right for next week, so we all have a sense of urgency in everything we do.”

In other words, if they haven’t been able to fix it by now, how are they going to fix it in the next week? That’s not an encouraging sign from a defensive coordinator whose defense has been bailing water out of the boat for several weeks now.

Let’s pretend Bullock doesn’t come down with an interception late in the second quarter. Does Cal kick a field goal? Does USC not score that touchdown? If both of those things happen, it’s a 10-point swing in a game the Trojans won by … six.

It’s difficult to even point to one aspect of the game the Trojans struggle with most; the reality is that this just isn’t a good defense right now. 

“Really, I don’t even know what it is. When we get up, it seems like we take our foot off their neck,” Bullock said. “I would say, in the beginning, we’re dominating. They can’t run the ball, they can barely do things, but then that second half, I’d say we let our foot off the neck, kinda got a little bit too comfortable.”

“I think they were successful on first down, second down, third down. I mean, that was my perspective on it, and the second half, just the inability to make plays. [If] you have an opportunity to get a hand on the football, we gotta get a hand on the football, we can’t be okay with [just] being close to the quarterback,” Grinch said.

“Inevitably if we’re in zone [coverage], we wish we were in man. If we’re playing man, we wish it was zone, and obviously football doesn’t work like that.”

Maybe it’s good that Grinch recognizes that, but there’s an argument to be made that great teams and great coordinators can figure out when to play man vs. zone, and that’s what makes defenses successful.


The Trojans haven’t been perfect offensively, but that side of the ball is doing enough to win these games, even in bad performances so far. However, the defense has struggled to maintain the big leads built by the offense.

“I think they’re frustrated, I think absolutely. I’d like to think we’ve got some competitors in here, and the nice thing is we sit here today, as frustrated as we are, it’s after a win, thank God and thank the offense,” Grinch said. “We chose to coach on defense and we chose to play on defense so there’s an expectation that we have involvement in the winning.”

All season long, there have been questions about shoring up defensive issues. The answer from USC’s coaching staff has always been working harder in practice.

Theoretically, practice is where these weaknesses should be addressed, but they clearly haven’t been. In fact, USC’s defense has been trending in the wrong direction, seeming weaker and weaker in a recent stretch of unimpressive play for the Trojans. (Yes, they have also had more injuries recently on both sides of the ball.)

“I think we keep working the same way that we have from day one,” Riley said. “You’ve got to continue to improve this time of year. You’ve got to continue to grind and push them on the practice field, which we will do, and we have to be ready to play our very best here in the end.”

Mekhi Blackmon echoed Riley’s sentiment. “There’s definitely some frustration, but we know we just need to get back to work and practice, and we’ll figure it out.”

“We’ve got to stop giving up yards and points,” said Bullock. “We’ve gotta hold offenses to not that many points, which we planned to do coming into today, but really that’s it.”

Bullock did have a strong game including an interception that created USC points and another pass breakup that almost could have been another interception. He’s a phenomenal young player, but that analysis of a defense (and secondary) that just gave up over 400 passing yards might point to Grinch’s lackluster defensive leadership.

At a certain point, something has to change. Injuries aside, you’re largely stuck with the personnel you have, so the scheme is the main thing that can be adjusted. Obviously, USC is weak at linebacker depth with Eric Gentry and Ralen Goforth having missed the last two games, but Grinch’s response has been to play a ton of dime packages on defense.

If you’re giving up over 400 passing yards with six defensive backs on the field for the majority of the game, maybe it’s worth trying something else. Perhaps take a great (yet unproven) athlete like Korey Foreman and move him to linebacker, then transition to a 4-3 set and try and limit the middle of the field from opening up so much.


The Trojans were able to make some things happen through the air without Mario Williams and Jordan Addison for the second consecutive week, however the offense simply doesn’t flow as smoothly without its two top receiving targets.

Tahj Washington has proven to be extremely dependable, while Brendan Rice hasn’t really stepped up, at least in terms of production, the way he may have been expected to.

Washington went for 112 yards and a touchdown and seems to be Caleb Williams’ favorite target in the banged up receiver room right now. Michael Jackson III also broke a 59-yard touchdown and hauled in a 7-yard TD catch, racking up 115 yards in his best game as a Trojan.

“He attacks the ball; he’s got confident hands,” Riley said of Jackson. “He’s good after the catch, he runs hard, and he runs aggressive. Some guys you see they’re just running to get what they can get; some guys run as the aggressor, like ‘I’m going to get mine.’ And he runs like that. That’s what makes him a good receiver and a good punt returner.”

Though Williams did throw for a career-high 411 passing yards against Arizona and 360 yards Saturday against Cal, moving the ball just hasn’t felt as effortless these last two weeks. USC likely should have finished the first half with just 13 points, but an ugly Cal interception caught by Bullock gave the Trojans the ball back with 1:12 to go before the half, and they were able to score another touchdown to build a comfortable two-possession lead.

USC needs Williams and Addison back — preferably next week, so they can get back into rhythm against a weaker Colorado — in order to get back on track offensively. The eye test does not support USC’s argument for one of those College Football Playoff spots right now, and the Trojans offense will need to make a statement against No. 12 UCLA and Notre Dame, which just knocked off No. 4 Clemson in convincing fashion.

(All photos by Jason Goode)

Read More 

Back to top button