Bryson Shaw been here before. He had answered the same questions and addressed the same concerns about USC’s defense to the same group of assembled reporters who would no doubt tell the same story about how the Trojans had nearly fallen apart in exactly the same way. But last Saturday, as that familiar refrain rang out in Colorado, Shaw felt particularly full. The USC safety leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed, letting out his frustration.
“We don’t do plays. We are missing tackles. We’re not doing our job,” Shaw said.
He knew that the blame for such a feat would certainly lie with him Alex Grinch, the Trojans’ defensive coordinator. But Shaw insisted that USC’s defense was “sloppy.” [Grinch] down.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you other than we need to fix it,” Shaw said.
The passionate defense was a departure from the mild-mannered safety’s usual, personable tone — and from the standard explanations for USC’s defensive decline. But the desperation to repair the unit has become an all-too-familiar feeling at USC, one that no one was eager to talk about after Saturday’s disappointing second half.
“We know what we need to fix and we’re continuing from last week,” Nose Tackle said Kyon Barrs said.
So Barrs was asked: What needs to be fixed?
“That’s a question for Coach Grinch,” he replied.
Even Shaw was hesitant to say much. When asked about his passionate reaction on Saturday, he grinned and politely declined to elaborate.
“I’m just focused on Arizona,” Shaw said, “and getting ready.”
Everyone around USC is aware of the narrative that has followed the defense since the end of last season. That much was clear in Shaw’s unprompted defense of Grinch on Saturday. But when Riley was asked after the game if USC’s defense was struggling with any familiar issues, he dismissed that premise entirely.
“It’s not really the same issues,” Riley said. “If something doesn’t go the way we want it to, it won’t look like it did last year. Not for the trained eye. Not to a coach.”
Grinch called the comparison “low-hanging fruit,” but when asked what went wrong in Saturday’s second half, admitted that as a defense “unfortunately, we’ve been down this road before.”
That path became particularly dark and particularly fast last season when USC faltered against Utah, missing 15 tackles and completely collapsed in the Cotton Bowl when allowing more than 10 yards per game against Tulane. And nothing about the way the Trojans have started the season suggests that the tackling issues that emerged last season will subside this season.
USC has actually missed more tackles per game through five weeks (11.8) than it did last season (10.43). His run defense is also questionable, allowing 148 yards per game, 84th nationally and averaging just 11 fewer yards than last season. The fourth quarter also seemed to confuse USC again, which has scored 35% of its points in the final 15 minutes this season.
But there are some notable differences that Riley likes to point out. For one thing, the pass rush was particularly promising. Despite losing the nation’s defensive sack leader last season, USC ranks fifth in college football with 19 total sacks. The Trojans are currently averaging five weeks more pressure per game than they did in 2022.
“We were able to generate a consistent pass rush at all levels of defense,” Riley said. “I think we’re better from a blitz standpoint, from a linebacker position, and we definitely have guys up front, both outside and inside, that can create havoc, that can get into the backfield, they can tackle create for losses, so that’s what made a big difference.”
Not every difference from last year’s defense was a positive change. Much to Grinch’s chagrin, USC was unable to repeat its amazing turnover luck from last season. Through five weeks in 2022, the Trojans had 15 turnovers. They have seven of their five games this season.
Still, Riley said again Tuesday that he sees signs of progress on that side of the ball. Although you might need a trained eye to spot it.
“I think we’ve had fewer breakdowns, we’ve made some plays this year, honestly, I honestly don’t know if we were able to compete last year, so we’ve got to get it together, we can do it . “We can’t just do it, we can’t just dominate a good offense for two and a half quarters like we did the other day, we have to do it for four quarters and that’s our expectation that we can do it.”
USC linebacker Mason CobbLike Shaw before him, he wonders whether fixing the defense might be even easier.
“We’re here,” Cobb said. “We’re missing tackles. At least that means we’re in the right place.”