Sam’s Section: USC’s defense is holding the Trojans back from winning the Pac-12, and it’ll continue in the Big Ten 

Utah quarterback Bryson Barnes (16) runs with the ball during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California, Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles. Photo by Ryan Sun/AP Photo.

USC is one of the most decorated programs in college football history, with 11 claimed national championships, 37 conference titles and 84 consensus All-Americans. There was a lot of hype coming into the 2023 season, with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams returning along with head coach Lincoln Riley. 

Southern California had positioned itself for a College Football Playoff appearance heading into the 2022 Pac-12 Championship Game. However, Utah had other plans, beating the Trojans 47-24 to clinch back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances. 

Many people in the college football world have called for defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to be fired. Trojans Wire said Riley might have to fire him “just because this season has been a disaster.” 

There were extremely high expectations in Los Angeles following the 2022 season. However, with back-to-back losses, time is running out for Grinch to prove he’s worthy of being responsible for the defense at one of the top programs in the country. 

Southern California led by 27 points at Colorado late in the third quarter and gave up three unanswered touchdowns, still holding on to win 48-41. 

Again, the defense was a no-show in a triple-overtime battle at home against Arizona. Despite USC putting up 43 points, they were not able to extend their lead as much as one score against the Wildcats. When they traveled to Tucson last season, they won again, giving up 543 yards this time. 

Utah, led by head coach Kyle Whittingham, defeated the Trojans in the Riley era. 

The Utes first took down Southern California in 2022. USC led by as many as two scores during the first half, but that lead would shrink to one touchdown during the second half. With 48 seconds left, Utah quarterback Cameron Rising crossed the goal line for a touchdown and the game-winning two-point conversion. They gave up 562 yards to the Utes and could not stop tight end Dalton Kincaid, who had 234 yards on 16 receptions. 

Later that season, the two teams met in Las Vegas for the Pac-12 Championship Game. USC led early in the game by as many as 14 points. However, that lead quickly vanished as Utah scored two touchdowns in the final four minutes of the first half. Southern California wide receiver Mario Williams caught a 12-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to a field goal in the fourth quarter, but the Trojans then gave up three touchdowns with no response from USC’s offense. They gave up 533 yards in the team’s second loss of the 2022 season. 

Utah safety Sione Vaki, right, runs in for a touchdown as Southern California safety Jaylin Smith defends during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 21, 2023, in Los Angeles. Photo by Mark J. Terrill/AP Photo.

On Saturday, Southern California gave up 482 yards in a 34-32 loss to the Utes. They were unable to stop Sione Vaki, who caught five passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns. One element of this game that is different from the others mentioned is that Utah was in front for most of the game. The Trojans did not lead during the second half until their star quarterback ran in for an 11-yard touchdown with less than two minutes remaining in the game. However, the defense could not stop the passing and rushing offense Utah had to offer despite Rising being out for the season. 

California has been one of the bottom feeders in the Pac-12 for a few years now, but USC’s defense still gave up 469 yards, including 406 passing yards from quarterback Jack Plummer, who threw for three touchdowns. The Trojans led by as many as 20 points early in the second half but gave up three fourth-quarter touchdowns as the Trojans held on to win 41-35. 

The 2023 Cotton Bowl Classic showed how poor USC’s defense is. With four and a half minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Trojans saw their 15-point lead evaporate as Tulane defied all odds and came back to shock them 46-45. Southern California gave up 539 yards in the shootout. In my opinion, this is Grinch’s most embarrassing moment yet. 

USC gives up 30.5 points and 407.6 yards per game, which ranks ninth out of 12 teams in the conference. They have the worst rushing defense in the Pac-12, giving up 164.3 yards per game. 

On third down, the Trojans’ opponents convert 36.44% of the time, while opponents are 58.82% on fourth down conversions. 

The rest of the Trojans’ schedule is no cakewalk. Three of their four remaining opponents are currently ranked in the AP Poll: Washington, Oregon and UCLA. 

Their schedule won’t get any easier as USC joins the Big Ten in 2024, including but not limited to Notre Dame, Michigan, UCLA, Penn State and Washington next season. 

If Southern California wants to be considered a national contender, they must take their defense to a higher level. Georgia has won back-to-back National Championships thanks to their top-tier defense. 

The Trojans will be facing more of the most prolific offenses in the nation soon and their defense is not ready at all for the challenges that await them. 

Grinch and USC’s defense will look to bounce back as they take on California on Saturday at 4 p.m. on Pac-12 Network. 

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