USC eager to atone for its defensive lapses in Cotton Bowl

Three weeks later, Alex Grinch is still following everything. The missed tackles, the discarded interceptions, the blown lead.

The defensive collapse against Utah that cost USC a Pac-12 championship and their college football playoff berth is fresh in the defensive coordinator’s mind.

“We didn’t finish,” Grinch said Thursday after practice. “And we haven’t done that for 13 games, by and large. In 11 of them it didn’t hurt us and in two of them it hurt us and that’s why we’re not champions at the moment. So it’s really disappointing and sometimes you have to lose a game to maybe land the message, but man, championship ball games, you don’t get a lot of those opportunities.

The Trojans get a chance to atone for their defensive sins by ending their season on a positive note on Jan. 2 in the Cotton Bowl against Tulane.

The New Year’s Six Bowl — the program’s first since 2017 — feels like a minor consolation prize for what USC nearly accomplished. Had they avenged their regular-season loss to Utah with a conference championship, the Trojans would have been in the playoffs. The offense, led by Heisman-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, had the firepower to get them there. But the defense lagged behind, putting extra emphasis on the bowl game for a unit that has something to prove.

“People feel like we’re overrated, I’d say,” said safety Calen Bullock, “so we’re just trying to go out there and show the world what we’re capable of and what we’re achieving.”

Opponents outscored the Trojans 130-128 in the fourth quarter of this year, the only period in which USC didn’t have a goal advantage. Utah won the fourth quarter 38-14 in their two wins over USC, including a 23-7 lead in the Pac-12 championship game that turned a 10-52 three-point play into a blowout.

USC Defense Coordination Coach Alex Grinch watches a win over Cal on Nov. 5 from the sidelines.

USC Defense Coordination Coach Alex Grinch watches a win over Cal on Nov. 5 from the sidelines.

(Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

According to Pro Football Focus, Utah benefited from 24 missed USC tackles. The failed tackles turned into long touchdowns for the Utes, who hit in the fourth quarter on plays for 60, 53, and 23 yards. Bullock missed a touchdown-saving tackle that would have kept USC within three points when tight end Thomas Yassmin twitched the sophomore safety at the 13-yard line, shattering the momentum of USC’s comeback attempt.

Like Grinch, Bullock said he was still frustrated with the team’s inability to finish the crucial game on the track. A year after the coaching change, there are no number of pep talks or drills that can save the Trojans from the failed tackles. It is only up to the players to execute them.

“A lot of it is mentality and will, as opposed to just technique,” Grinch said. “When we use great technique, do they just fall over for us? No, it does not work out this way. You have to be voted in and you have to want to get him down.”

Following in the footsteps of Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley, Grinch was tasked with rescuing a defense that set school records for futility in points allowed (31.8 per game) and yards allowed (6.5 per game). He coached for Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year with Tuli Tuipulotu, but USC’s defensive performance improved only slightly to 27.9 points allowed and 6.3 yards per game.

“That’s a good stepping stone to where we need to go,” said defender Nick Figueroa. “It’s a process. Things won’t happen overnight but there has been a lot of progress and sometimes that might not always manifest on the pitch…but I know we’re in the position where we want to move forward.”

Grinch is familiar with trying to rebuild a unit in ruins. When he took over in Oklahoma, the Sooners were ranked 101st nationally in goal defense, allowing for 33.3 points per game. During Grinch’s freshman year, they improved to 27.3 points per game. At Washington State, he took a Cougar defense from 38.6 points allowed to 27.7 in his freshman season.

But instant improvement was rarely enough to make the leap into the nation’s elite. With 21.7 points allowed, the 2020 Sooners are the only Grinch defense to give up fewer than 25 points per game for an entire season. No team has made the playoffs and conceded more than 25 points per game in the past two years. USC eager to atone for its defensive lapses in Cotton Bowl

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