May 19, 2024

Lincoln Riley shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and offered a tight smile.

“How long do you got?” the USC coach responded when faced with yet another question about his defense.

After the team’s Heisman-winning quarterback provided unprompted, emphatic support of USC’s embattled defense last weekend, the coach provided his own Tuesday, saying the outside perception of the Alex Grinch-led unit fails to see the whole picture of an improving group that has come up with key plays.

“A lot of people in the media had their mind made up that the first second there was any adversity this year, it was like, ‘Oh my God, they should have done this, and they should have made this change,’ and blah blah blah. And it’s not true,” Riley said in a 2-minute 12-second soliloquy after practice. “Like, listen — you’re going to go through the whole year, you’re going to have a tough game. You’re going to have a tough quarter. Do you respond?”

The Trojans responded last Saturday, doing just enough in triple overtime to survive an onslaught of their own self-inflicted wounds on both offense and defense. But entering a grueling second-half schedule that begins with rival Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., on Saturday, judging the Trojans remains its own Rorschach test.

Last Saturday, USC gave up just 11 points in the final three quarters of regulation, Riley emphasized, and helped the offense dig out of a 17-point, first-quarter hole with a momentum-shifting interception by cornerback Jacobe Covington. Arizona’s 28-point total would have been a solid performance from the defense had the special teams not botched a chip-shot field goal as the fourth quarter expired.

But the Trojans also rank 109th nationally in total defense and have missed an average of 16.3 tackles in each of the last three games. After giving up 116.7 yards after the catch in the first three games, USC let Arizona State, Colorado and Arizona run for an average of 171 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.

Whichever numbers critics or supporters point to, the one that matters most is zero: the number of games the Trojans (6-0) have lost.

“We’re not hiding from the areas that we’ve got to continue to make improvement, and there certainly are some. But this is a much-improved unit,” Riley said. “There is no question about it. I mean, this is a unit that, I think, when you talk about the top-end potential, has a chance to really grow and get better fast given some of the youth, some of the new people, some of the quality depth that we have, some of the injuries that we’ve had that have prevented guys from being able to continually get snaps, but there are a lot of good things happening on this defense, man. You don’t sit there and do what we’re doing in TFLs, do what we’re doing in sacks; like, there’s so many great things.”

USC leads the country with 9½ tackles for loss per game and is tied for fifth with 3.67 sacks per game. Jamil Muhammad leads the Trojans with 10 tackles for loss. With six sacks in as many games, the Georgia State transfer is tied for fifth nationally in sacks per game.

USC defensive end Jamil Muhammad in the first half of a game.

USC defensive end Jamil Muhammad in the first half of a game.

(Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

But even one of the breakout stars is not immune to criticism, and yes, Muhammad is keeping receipts. The redshirt senior posted a screenshot from a video of USC beat writers discussing the team on his Instagram account Monday with the chyron at the bottom of the image reading: “Is Jamil Muhammad receiving too much hype?”

“Stand on that,” Muhammad wrote in the caption.

“There’s just certain things I do pay attention to,” Muhammad said Tuesday. “There’s certain things that I do use for an extra chip on my shoulder, continue to allow me to push for that ultimate goal.”

Even offensive players are stepping in to defend the defense. After Riley fielded a question about the defense’s progress during last Saturday’s postgame news conference, Williams interjected.

“We wouldn’t have won that game without the defense,” the junior quarterback said. “We were down 17-0, so this whole ‘defense’ thing, our brothers, the score wouldn’t be 43-41 without them. So put it simply that way.”

While Williams is the hero who earns the most praise in headlines, it was the defense that finished Saturday’s game. The Trojans flexed their quality defensive depth as Prophet Brown, the team’s fifth cornerback, combined to make the game-clinching tackle with linebacker Mason Cobb. With injuries piling up at cornerback, Brown played 27 snaps against the Wildcats, according to Pro Football Focus. It was his first game since coming off the bench in USC’s blowout over Stanford.

“I’m impressed by Prophet,” safety Max Williams said. “He probably didn’t expect to be playing in that game. His number was called and he made a big play at the end of the game to seal the win.”

While sophomore starter Domani Jackson is expected to return after missing the last two games because of an undisclosed injury, Christian Roland-Wallace, the most experienced cornerback, was not a full participant at practice Tuesday. Riley said he’s hopeful the redshirt senior can return by Saturday.

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