May 23, 2024

Its superstar quarterback was well into whipping up his weekly wizardry, piling up easy points and slinging four first-half touchdown passes on his way to a career-high-tying half-dozen, when USC’s defense had its first chance to close the door for good on Colorado.

Less than three minutes remained in a first half during which Colorado and its high-flying offense largely had been stifled by the Trojans. Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders mostly had been contained, while USC star passer Caleb Williams spotted his defense a four-score cushion. One last stop seemed sure to break the Buffaloes.

But one last stop, as it turned out, was very nearly too much to ask of the Trojans’ troubling defense, which not only gave up a score before halftime, but also four more touchdowns after that, keeping the door open for Colorado as it climbed back closer and closer during a nightmarish second half. A 27-point USC lead was trimmed to a single-touchdown advantage before the clock mercifully ran out on Colorado’s feverish comeback attempt.

USC ultimately escaped Colorado with a 48-41 victory, but on a Saturday morning that might’ve otherwise been the start of a second Heisman coronation, it instead closed with serious questions about whether USC’s defense might squander its quarterback’s incredible gifts.

“We need to get it fixed,” USC safety Bryson Shaw said. “It’s embarrassing.”

The Trojans gave up 564 yards, 318 after halftime, when the defense mysteriously forgot how to tackle. It was the most yards given up since Lincoln Riley’s arrival, more than both its road loss to Utah last year (562) and its devastating Cotton Bowl defeat to Tulane (539).

But as Riley sees it, the problems are not the same ones that plagued USC in the past. Even if the results Saturday looked awfully familiar.

“When something doesn’t go our way, it doesn’t look like last year. Not to the trained eye. Not to a coach,” Riley said. “We didn’t do a good job of keeping the quarterback in the pocket. We were suffocating ‘em. That gave them life, that drive before half, that gave them life. We were doing everything really, really well.”

USC coach Lincoln Riley looks at the scoreboard during the Trojans' 48-41 win over Colorado on Saturday.

USC coach Lincoln Riley looks at the scoreboard during the Trojans’ 48-41 win over Colorado on Saturday.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Then, suddenly, USC’s defense couldn’t do much of anything right. Sanders started finding time in the pocket and broke free for long runs. Colorado receivers started finding slivers downfield. Coverages sagged. Holes opened up. Sanders threw for 262 yards after halftime, while Colorado’s rushing attack, which ranked as the worst in the nation entering Saturday, racked up 193 yards, just 30 fewer than the Buffaloes’ total during four games.

Riley blamed the porous run defense on Colorado’s surprising commitment to the run-pass option, a concept that probably shouldn’t confound a defense with serious title aspirations.

Even still, with each successive drive, it seemed USC had a chance to close the door on Colorado — but couldn’t. That’s where the similarities to last season are most concerning.

“Just staying awake, man,” linebacker Mason Cobb said. “We’ve gotta stay awake on D and finish plays.”

A missed tackle from cornerback Domani Jackson jump-started one Colorado touchdown drive with a 65-yard gain from freshman Omarion Miller. A missed tackle from Shaw on a screen pass helped spring another touchdown. On its next drive, Colorado turned a fourth down into a touchdown.

Twice, Colorado went the length of the field in just five plays and less than 90 seconds. Twice after that, the Buffaloes scored on long, methodical drives.

Everything seemed to be working in Colorado’s favor. Except the clock.

From here on out, time isn’t exactly on USC’s side, either. After next week’s meeting with Arizona, USC’s schedule includes four top-12 teams and three of the nation’s top-17 scoring offenses, all of whom probably are salivating at the thought of facing this USC defense.

USC defensive coordinator coach Alex Grinch stands on the sideline during a game against California in November.

USC defensive coordinator coach Alex Grinch stands on the sideline during a game against California in November.

(Brian Rothmuller / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That could mean the clock also is ticking on the Trojans’ defensive coordinator. Alex Grinch has been embattled basically since he arrived at USC, and while Riley continues to reassert his faith in Grinch — he did again Saturday afternoon — the same concerned chorus that rang out last fall grows louder once again.

“Coach Grinch, he’s doing a great job, we’re letting him down,” Shaw said. “That’s point blank, period. I don’t know what to tell y’all, as players, we’re letting him down. He’s putting us in the right spots, we’re not making plays, we’re missing tackles, we’re not doing our job, I’m not doing my job. We’re letting him down.”

And with much stiffer competition ahead, it’s going to take more than another stunning performance from the Trojans’ superstar quarterback to preserve their championship hopes.

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