May 20, 2024

USC’s defense gathered around its embattled coach last Saturday, already reeling from potential disaster. Alex Grinch had hammered home all season the importance of limiting big plays, and all season, it seemed to make little difference. USC was already giving up more plays of 20-plus yards than any other Power Five defense, and twice already in the first quarter, the Bears had broken off two big touchdown runs.

As he crouched on the sideline in Berkeley, Grinch slammed both hands to the turf. Both times Cal’s Jayden Ott sprung free — first, for a 43-yard touchdown, then for a 61-yarder — it was because a defender was out of position. A defensive lineman went the wrong way. A linebacker filled the wrong gap. A safety took off in the wrong direction.

It was tempting at the time for Grinch to wonder if Cal had surprised him with something his defense wasn’t prepared for. But the issues, upon film study, proved painfully familiar.

The frustration flowed in the moment. Grinch lit into his defense. By Tuesday, though, he’d put the blame squarely on his shoulders.

“Couldn’t be more disappointed in myself,” Grinch said. “You’re constantly looking at calls. Obviously, you’re looking at personnel. We gotta get it fixed, and we gotta get it fixed fast.”

But the two big runs were fitting encapsulations of a problem that has plagued USC’s defense all season. Arguably no defense on a contending college football team has been worse at stopping explosive plays. And with Washington, one of college football’s most high-flying offenses, coming to the Coliseum on Saturday, Grinch doesn’t have much time to sort things out.

The Trojans have given up 55 plays of 20-plus yards this season, which ranks 130th of 135 quality teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision. Lower the threshold to 10-yard plays, and the Trojans have given up 130, an average of more than 14 per game.

The optimist, in this case, might reason that only a handful of big plays are standing in the way of USC’s defense finding its full potential. That’s where Lincoln Riley found himself Tuesday.

“We don’t need to fix 60 plays, but there’s about five to 10 a game that we gotta fix,” Riley said. “The great thing for us, if you flip that and do that, which we gotta go do it, the nature of these games can change very quickly because a lot of them hinge on those plays.”

But in USC’s case, those plays always seem to beget other big plays. On Saturday, Ott’s two scores gave way to 13 more explosive plays in the game, several of which nearly sunk USC in a narrow win.

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch arrives for practice.

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch arrives for practice.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

If not for the Trojans’ own explosive offense, which paces all of college football in plays of 10-plus yards, it probably would have. USC’s offense has 17 more plays of 10-plus yards than any other FBS team.

Grinch briefly offered his own glass-half-full assessment of his defense’s big-play propensity — “God dang man, it’s just a step away, it’s a gap away,” he said — before settling back into shouldering the blame himself.

“We have to coach them through it,” Grinch said. “It’s my responsibility to get that done, and I’m not getting it done.”

His willingness to accept the responsibility hasn’t gone unnoticed by USC’s defense.

“He’s taken a lot of heat for us,” linebacker Shane Lee said. “That’s really tough. Especially week after week, late in the season now. But we need that. That’s his trust in us.”

“We all stand behind him,” added linebacker Mason Cobb.

The question looming over USC is how long Riley will stand by his coordinator. The pressure for Grinch to right the ship is sure to reach a fevered pitch over the next two weeks as USC faces off with Washington and Oregon, the Pac-12’s two best teams and two most explosive offenses outside of the Trojans. A loss to either could erase USC’s slim hopes of competing for a Pac-12 title.

Not exactly the best time for USC to find out one of its ascending safeties, freshman Zion Branch, was lost for the rest of the season because of a knee injury.

“I think the biggest thing for the defense right now is we’re not quitting at all,” Lee said. “We just keep attacking, regardless of what happens. Then you get back up and you swing again. As long as you have that mentality, you always have a shot.”

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