What’s wrong with USC’s defense? Is it the same story or are there new issues?

Southern California linebacker Theo Bravos, left, pursues Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Bryson Shaw had been here before. He’d answered the same questions, addressed the same concerns about USC’s defense to the same group of gathered reporters, who no doubt would relay the same story about how the Trojans nearly came apart in the very same fashion. But last Saturday, when that familiar refrain had played out in Colorado, Shaw found himself feeling especially fed up. The USC safety leaned back in his chair, his brow furrowed, and let the frustration flow.

“We’re not making plays. We’re missing tackles. We’re not doing our job,” Shaw said.

The blame for such a performance, he knew, would fall on Alex Grinch, the Trojans’ defensive coordinator. But Shaw insisted that Grinch’s players were “letting him down.”

“I don’t know what else to tell you besides we gotta fix it,” Shaw said.

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The impassioned defense was a departure from the mild-mannered safety’s usual, congenial tone — and from the usual, boilerplate explanations for USC’s defensive decline. But the desperation around fixing the unit has become an all-too-familiar feeling around USC, one that no one was eager to talk about in the wake of Saturday’s disappointing second half.

“We know what we need to fix and we’re moving on from last week,” nose tackle 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. Asked about his passionate response Saturday, he grinned, politely denying to go deeper.

“I’m just focused on Arizona,” Shaw said, “and getting ready to roll for that.”

Everyone around USC is well aware of the narrative that’s followed the defense since late last season. That much was clear amid Shaw’s unprompted defense of Grinch. But when coach Lincoln Riley was asked after the game about USC’s defense dealing with familiar issues, he rejected the premise altogether.

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“It’s not really the same issues,” Riley said. “When something doesn’t go our way, it doesn’t look like last year. Not to the trained eye. Not to a coach.”

Grinch called it “low-hanging fruit” to compare, but when asked what went wrong in the second half Saturday, acknowledged that “unfortunately, we’ve been down this road before.”

That road got especially dark, especially fast last season, as USC unraveled against Utah, missing 15 tackles, and completely collapsed in the Cotton Bowl, when it gave up more than 10 yards per play against Tulane. And nothing about the way the Trojans have started the season suggests the tackling issues that started mounting last season are subsiding.

USC actually has missed more tackles per game through five weeks (11.8) than it did last season (10.4). Its run defense is similarly questionable, giving up 148 yards per game, 84th nationally and just 11 fewer than last season. The fourth quarter also seems to once again confound USC, which has given up 35% of its points in the final 15 minutes.

Colorado wide receiver Xavier Weaver drops a pass while tackled by USC cornerback Ceyair Wright.

But there are notable differences Riley is happy to point out. For one, the pass rush has been particularly promising. In spite of losing the nation’s sack leader from last season, USC ranks fifth with 19 sacks and is averaging five more pressures per game than in 2022.

“We’ve been able to generate consistent pass rush from all levels of the defense,” Riley said. “I think we’re better from a blitzing standpoint, from the linebacker position and we certainly have guys up front both outside and on the interior that can create havoc, that can get in the backfield, they can create tackles for loss, so that’s been a big difference.”

One strength from last season has failed to materialize, though. Much to Grinch’s chagrin, USC hasn’t been able to replicate its astonishing turnover luck of 2022, when the Trojans tallied 15 turnovers through five weeks. This season they have seven.

Still, Riley once again said Tuesday that he sees progress on that side of the ball. Even if you might need a trained eye to see it.

“We’ve busted less, we’ve played some stretches of ball this year that frankly, I don’t know if we were capable of playing last year, to be honest, so we’ve gotta put it together … we can’t just dominate a good offense for 2½ quarters like we did the other day, we’ve gotta do it for four and that’s our expectation that we will.”

USC linebacker Mason Cobb, like Shaw before him, wonders if fixing the defense might be even simpler than that.

“We’re missing tackles,” Cobb said. “At least that means we’re in the right spot.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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