He’s a quarterback guru, with one of the best offensive minds in today’s game, but fielding an elite defense is what has kept him from winning a National Title.
Last season Lincoln Riley led USC to an 11-1 start. Not to mention the Trojans ranked first in the Pac-12, and third nationally in total offense. However, Riley’s defense got exposed big time in the Pac-12 Championship Game, and the Cotton Bowl.
The fans placed the shoulder of the blame on Defensive Coordinator Alex Grinch, who Riley brought with him from Oklahoma. And the numbers don’t lie. USC ranked 106th in the FBS in total defense, and gave up 52 touchdowns. The 423.9 yards per game the defense allowed was the worst in program history. The secondary was a major liability too, and got torched throughout the year.
Due to the USC’s shortcomings on defense, Riley’s offense had to outscore opponents, which resulted in shootouts against Utah, Arizona, California, UCLA and Tulane. After the Trojans landed at No. 6 in the 2023 preseason AP Poll last week, now everyone is wondering how much the defense has improved.
After all, Grinch’s group lost first-team, All-Pac-12 defenders Tuli Tuipulotu and Mekhi Blackmon to the NFL. Tuipulotu was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, who led the team in tackles for loss over the past two seasons. Blackmon hauled in three interceptions, and broke up 12 passes.
Despite those losses, USC returns a lot of production on defense, including its’ top-three tacklers, and that has the fans feeling positive about the 2023 campaign. It doesn’t help that the Pac-12 will be full of elite gunslingers this fall. That’s why the Trojans have to be better on defense this time around, in order to get to the promised land. There’s great talent at each level of the defense though.
Safety Calen Bullock earned second-team, All-Pac-12 honors last year. Defensive back Max Williams and linebacker Shane Lee tied for first on the team in stops, and combined for four interceptions. On top of that, defensive lineman Tyrole Taleni and Stanley Ta’ufo’ou combined for 52 tackles, including 13 for loss and six sacks.
Although USC’s defense will be under a microscope this fall, having that much experience, production and leadership should be beneficial down the stretch. Quarterback Caleb Williams is going to do his part with helping the offense average over 40 points per game, which is more than enough to win.
So if the defense is improved in year two of Grinch’s scheme, the Trojans can make a serious run at a National Title, and crash the Playoffs for the first time in school history. Having a primetime spotlight in week zero this Saturday should be more than enough motivation for the defense to showcase what it’s been brewing for the past nine months.
San Jose State has some firepower on offense that will test Grinch’s unit. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro threw for 3,251 yards, 23 touchdowns and six interceptions in 2022. He also led the Spartans to a bowl game. There’s no denying San Jose State’s offense is going to be a measuring stick test for USC’s defense.
So expect Riley to make a statement, while the rest of the country watches and the Trojans get off to a hot start out of the gates.