Lincoln Riley's first season at USC was an unequivocal success. Taking over a moribund program that went 4-8 in 2021 and going 11-3, making a New Year's Six Bowl, just missing the College Football Playoff and churning out a Heisman Trophy winner qualifies as a rousing turnaround. But if Riley wants to take the Trojans to the next level, he needs to fire defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
USC lost to Tulane in the Cotton Bowl on Monday 46-45. The Trojans led 45-30 with about four minutes left and managed to choke it away thanks to defensive incompetence and a massive special teams mistake. All season, Grinch's defense let down the rest of the roster again and again. Yes, USC needs to bring in better players, but Grinch never evolved and never improved things.
On Monday, Tulane racked up 539 yards. That's not shocking, the Green Wave have an excellent offene that put up numbers all season. It's how those numbers were earned that were embarrassing.
Tulane rushed for 309 yards on 34 attempts. That's an average of 9.0 yards per carry. NINE yards per rush. Star running back Tyjae Spears was a monster, totalling 205 yards and four touchdowns on 17 carries. That's 12.1 yards per carry. Read that stat again.
Quarterback Michael Pratt only completed 8 of 17 passes but wound up throwing for 234 yards and two touchdowns. That's an insane 29.3 yards per completion.
Overall, Tulane averaged 10.4 yards per play.
If USC didn't have Caleb Williams (472 total yards and five touchdowns) it would have been a blowout.
This wasn't a one-game bug. USC's defense ranked 101st in total defense (415.1 yards per game) and 112th in yards per play allowed (6.3) on the season. The only saving grace for the Trojans was that they led the nation in turnover margin (+22) after causing 28 of them (19 interceptions, nine fumble recoveries). USC did also have 36 sacks, which is decent, but not a game-changer for a defense that got pushed around regularly.
This was the second-straight game the Trojans were manhandled by an opponent. During a 47-24 loss to Utah in the Pac-12 Championship Game, USC allowed 533 yards to the Utes, 310 through the air and 223 on the ground. Utah averaged 9.1 yards per attempt passing and 6.4 yards per rush, while quarterback Cam Rising moved the team up and down the field at will. USC's tackling was atrocious for all 60 minutes of that contest.
I hate putting this label on a team or a unit, but USC's defense was flat-out soft all season. The front seven -- other than Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Tui Tuipulotu -- was pushed around by inferior talent in virtually every game. The secondary had some playmakers in corner Mekhi Blackmon and safety Calen Bullock, but it wasn't much better. At some point Grinch needed to make changes. And he didn't.
USC had a month to prepare for Tulane's offense. A month to study the opponent, make adjustments and, above all, practice tackling. Whatever Grinch did during those practices, meetings and film sessions didn't work.
For months I've been saying Riley was going to retain Grinch for 2023 despite the defense's struggles. Grinch has had success before and He needs to be given time to get his players into his system and the cupboard was pretty bare talent-wise when he arrived. After what happened at the Cotton Bowl, I'm not sure Riley can bring him back.
The performance on Monday is the kind that gets you fired. Even if the defense had been average all year it might be one that puts a coordinator on the hot seat. Grinch was already there. I know Riley and Grinch are close, but this isn't working and needs to be fixed.
If Lincoln Riley is serious about turning USC into a college football power, he needs to move on from Alex Grinch and throw a ton of money at a top-tier defensive coordinator.