May 19, 2024

When Alex Grinch boarded a private plane bound for Los Angeles two years ago, Brian Odom was the man left holding the reins to Oklahoma’s defense. Odom had never been a coordinator, never led a defense, never called defensive plays. But as the Sooners prepped for the Alamo Bowl, Odom stayed in Norman in Grinch’s place, helping lead them to a bowl win before eventually following his friend to USC.

The experience leading Oklahoma’s defense would prove particularly valuable this week, when Odom once again was thrust into an interim role in relief of Grinch, who was fired as USC’s defensive coordinator Sunday.

This time Odom won’t have weeks to engineer a defensive turnaround, with help from fellow interim coordinator Shaun Nua. The nation’s top scoring offense awaits the Trojans in a matter of days, and USC’s slim Pac-12 title hopes hinge entirely on its reeling defense slowing down Oregon in Eugene, where the Ducks have averaged almost 56 points per game this season.

That’s a tall order, given how far USC’s defense had fallen before bottoming out last Saturday in a 52-42 loss to Washington. Neither Odom nor Nua has the impression they can make sweeping changes in such a short time.

“You’re not going to reinvent the wheel in a matter of a week,” Odom said. “The goal of this week obviously is to win the game. But also to be able to put our guys in the situation to play fast, for things to be simple for them and go make a difference when they’re on the field.”

Nua and Odom were working out how to implement those changes without overwhelming USC’s players, all while still processing the sudden exit of their friend and colleague.

As far as the scheme goes, it’s fair to wonder how much progress they can make with just two games remaining.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Nua said.

“We might go in with one call, if that’s what it takes for them to frickin’ fly around and play as physical as possible, as fast as possible, as right as possible.”

Players said they’d already noticed minor differences on defense.

“What can we digest? What do we need to change? What do we not need to change, can we keep the same?” Odom said. “You’ve obviously got to be respectful to the players in terms of allowing those guys to play fast and do what they know. And you don’t want to veer too far off of that, because if you do that, then they would be very confused and everybody else would be disappointed, so we’re trying to keep as much same as as we can, trying to be more efficient with it, play with a lot of energy and have a lot of fun.”

That alone would be a decided shift from last Saturday night, when USC’s defense gave up 572 yards to Washington, its most under coach Lincoln Riley, and players were left looking miserable in the postgame news conference.

Linebacker Mason Cobb may have been the most frustrated. But a few days later, his focus had shifted. Cobb gathered USC’s defense before practice Tuesday in an effort to rally the troops.

“I said, what are you gonna do? Tuck your tail? Or stick your fist out and fight?” Cobb said.

USC safety Calen Bullock takes down Arizona receiver Jacob Cowing with help from linebacker Mason Cobb

USC safety Calen Bullock (7) takes down Arizona receiver Jacob Cowing (2) with help from Trojans linebacker Mason Cobb (13), left, at the Coliseum on Oct. 7.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Maintaining that fight after such a disheartening stretch of six straight games in which they gave up at least 34 points will be its own challenge for the two new coordinators to tackle. But galvanizing USC’s defense very well may be their most important job.

“We can all be down about it and upset,” Odom said, “but there’s a great opportunity in front of this team, there’s a great opportunity in front of this defense.”

When Riley met with both coaches following Grinch’s firing, that was the message. The coach had seen firsthand how one interim opportunity could be a career catalyst. When his mentor Mike Leach was fired as Texas Tech’s coach just before the team’s bowl game in 2009, Riley stepped in to call plays.

“That totally changed my trajectory,” Riley said. “And adversity like this can also bring about some of the best opportunities in somebody’s life if you view it that way.”

It’s probably too late to change the trajectory of USC’s defense, which remains on pace for a school record in points given up. But for now, Odom and Nua are taking that gargantuan task one day at a time.

“I don’t even really remember what day it is right now,” Odom said. “We’ve been grinding away at it, and we’ll go give it our best shot.”

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