May 24, 2024

What a waste.

The USC football season essentially ended Saturday as one big fat waste.

A wasted brilliant offense. A wasted Heisman Trophy winner. A wasted full Coliseum. A wasted revival of Trojan pride.

Wasted, all of it, because of coach Lincoln Riley’s refusal to fix an indefensibly bad defense that, in a single frightening word, has forever chiseled itself on to this season’s tombstone.

GRINCHED

The end came Saturday night in front of a rollicking sellout crowd that roared as the Caleb Williams-led Trojan offense pinned 42 points and 515 yards on nationally fifth-ranked and unbeaten Washington.

And still lost.

They lost because the Alex Grinch-led defense allowed Washington 52 points … and 572 total yards … and an unthinkable 316 rushing yards to the 117th ranked rushing team in the country.

They lost 52-42, the Huskies steamrolling coordinator Grinch’s national embarrassment while sending the Trojans to their third defeat and essentially knocking them out of the Pac-12 championship hunt with two games remaining.

An autumn that began with national championship dreams has now been whittled to the Rob Gronkowski Bowl or Bust, and the aftermath of this final dagger was absolutely heartbreaking.

There was Williams, leaning into the stands, hugging his mother, openly weeping.

“I want to go home and cuddle with my dog and watch some shows,” he said.

There was linebacker Mason Cobb, sitting with six other forlorn teammates at the postgame media conference, burying his head in his hoodie.

“Kind of looked like guys weren’t ready to make the play,” he said.

There was safety Calen Bullock, talking softly and looking confused.

“ All [the] big runs, either someone is not in their gap, or someone isn’t lined up,” he said.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams walks off the field during the Trojans' loss to Washington at the Coliseum.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams walks off the field during the final moments of the Trojans’ loss to Washington at the Coliseum.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Finally, at the very end of the night, there was a quickly emptying Coliseum field dotted with giddy Huskies dancing around grim security guards, yet another team that showed up and ran the Trojans ragged.

USC’s defense ranked No. 111 nationally before this game and proceeded to play like it should, in fact, be dead last.

“Just pissed,” said Riley. “Pissed that we missed this opportunity.”

Riley should be mostly pissed at himself, because Riley did this. He did this when he didn’t fire Grinch after last season’s late collapse. He did this when he didn’t fire Grinch after this season’s early struggles.

Riley did this by protecting his close buddy from Oklahoma even as Grinch’s struggles have cracked the foundation of a program Riley was hired to build. Riley did this while displaying a loyalty that feels worse than nepotism, he did this while being paid $10 million a year to know better.

Grinch will surely be replaced now, either immediately or after the season, but it’s too late. It should have happened long ago, and in a leadership fail that will forever symbolize his first two seasons here, Riley did this.

There being no doubt the firing will happen, the real question is whether Riley will admit it should have long since happened.

So Saturday night I asked him, did he have any regrets about how he’s handled the defense?

“I understand the question, I know it’s y’all’s question to ask it, but I’m not into the big-picture questions right now,” Riley said, later adding, “I know as a head coach, it all falls under my responsibility ultimately and I don’t shy away from that and I never have, but there are times and places for those discussions and those will happen at the appropriate times.”

USC quarterback Caleb Williams and coach Lincoln Riley make their way to the field at the Coliseum.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams and coach Lincoln Riley make their way to the field at the Coliseum before Saturday’s loss to Washington.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Sadly for the sake of a talented team that deserves better, the appropriate time has already passed. Grinch should have long gone by now, and Riley isn’t the only one who has been shrinking from his duty.

Where in the world is new athletic director Jennifer Cohen? She could have pushed Riley to make the tough call on his pal. There is recent precedent for that sort of shove.

This week Iowa athletic director Beth Goetz announced that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, son of coach Kirk Ferentz, would no longer be with the team after the end of the season.

She had to fire him because apparently his father could not. It was the end of a nightmare that feels like the USC situation. Grinch is not related to Riley, but it feels like it, and it seems like the only way to get rid of him would have been intervention from above.

That didn’t happen, and so USC was left with one last stand to save Saturday’s game, midway through the fourth quarter, Washington with the ball on its own nine-yard line and leading by three.

If USC holds, it has the offensive firepower to drive down and win the game. But USC couldn’t hold. USC never holds.

On the very first play of the drive, Washington running back Dillon Johnson took a pitch and raced 53 yards virtually untouched down the sideline to set up the Huskies’ game-clinching touchdown on Johnson’s one-yard run.

Fifty-three yards. On the first play of the game’s biggest drive. Unconscionable.

Johnson, a running back who had never gained more than 100 yards in a game, ran for 263 yards and four touchdowns. Unthinkable.

Johnson gained 199 yards before contact. That’s right, nearly 200 yards before he was touched. Unimaginable.

“They were slowing down,” Johnson said afterward. “They weren’t pressing as much as we thought they would. It made our day kind of easy.”

And just like that, it made the Trojans’ season kind of over.

“Yeah, I mean, obviously, wasn’t good enough,” said Riley of the run defense. “I mean, not by any stretch of the imagination. Couple of big plays in the run game, certainly at inopportune times.”

In this case, inopportune is defined as giving up big chunks of yards as the amazing scrambling Williams is throwing for 312 yards and three touchdowns, the tough Austin Jones is rushing for 127 yards and the spectacular Taj Washington is catching passes for 122 yards.

Earlier this week, Grinch took responsibility for the defense’s failings.

“Couldn’t be more disappointed in myself,” Grinch told reporters, later adding, “We gotta get it fixed, and we gotta get it fixed fast.”

At this point, there is only one fast way that fix is going to happen, and it’s tough to imagine Grinch is still in his current position by the end of the month.

It’s the right move. But it’s too late.

What a waste.

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