Jenni: Lincoln Riley defends Alex Grinch better than USC defended Colorado

Jenni: Lincoln Riley defends Alex Grinch better than USC defended Colorado

Jenni Carlson: On a day a blowout turned competitive, Southern Cal proved it has an elite offense but a defense that will hold it back from winning a national title. OU fans have heard it all before.

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

| Oct 1, 2023, 8:11pm CDT

Jenni Carlson

By Jenni Carlson

Oct 1, 2023, 8:11pm CDT

(Editor’s Note: Sellout Goes Mile-High is our special coverage of the Colorado vs. USC game. Sellout is sent columnist Jenni Carlson to Boulder to experience the most buzzed-about story in college football and also see what’s new with former OU coach-turned-USC villain Lincoln Riley. Coverage is sponsored by: 988, Oklahoma’s Mental Health Lifeline (https://988oklahoma.com/) |Rose Hill Builders (https://www.rosehill.builders/) |The Oklahoma State Department of Health’s Take Time initiative (https://taketimeok.com/) )

BOULDER, Colorado — Lincoln Riley hasn’t changed much.

He still sounds the same. Still talks like a guy from the panhandle of Texas, even though he’s spent almost two years living in Southern California. Still cuts the same figure standing on the sidelines as he did at Oklahoma.

And yes, he still spends time after lots of games talking about why Alex Grinch’s defense struggled. 

He did Saturday after a blowout turned competitive. Colorado scored six touchdowns in the final two quarters and 21 seconds of the game, whittling away a 27-point deficit but ultimately running out of time in a 48-41 loss.

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USC allowed 564 yards of offense, the most in the Riley era.

Tale as old as time, huh, Sooner fans?

Riley was asked after the game if he still had confidence in Grinch.

“Yes, I do,” he said curtly.

It’s difficult to see a head coach saying anything different, but it’s also difficult to see how this ends well for Grinch. Riley again has an offense that is elite, perhaps the best in the nation. USC may well win the Pac-12, which would be no small task in a league that’s grown serious fangs this season.

But winning a national title?

With this defense?

No way.

Again, it’s a tale as old as time for OU fans who watched Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts come and go without so much as a College Football Playoff win, never mind a national title.

I know Sooners won’t shed any tears over this, but the pattern sure looks to be repeating at USC. Caleb Williams is a supreme talent; as good as I thought he was at OU, he’s way, way, way better now. He threw for 403 yards and six touchdowns against Colorado and made difficult plays look routine.

If not for Williams, USC would’ve lost.

Riley seemed to acknowledge that in his postgame on-field interview with Fox.

“We gave up some big plays defensively where we simply didn’t tackle,” he said. “Give Colorado credit; they fought back. … Fortunately, we had a big enough lead, but obviously, something that’s going to have to get better for us going forward.”

Tackling is definitely an issue for Grinch’s defense. Ditto for physicality up front.

Clearly, Grinch and Co. knew they needed to be better this season. The Trojans brought in 15 transfers from the portal, and nine of them were defenders. Most of them were four-star guys, according to 247Sports. Defensive linemen Bear Alexander from Georgia, Anthony Lucas from Texas A&M and Jack Sullivan from Purdue. Cornerbacks Tre’Quon Fegans from Alabama and Christian Roland-Wallace from Arizona. Linebacker Mason Cobb from Oklahoma State.

And still, the USC defense is struggling, and reporters who watch the Trojans regularly say the issues this season are many of the same ones from a year ago.

“Yeah, it’s not really the same issues, though,” Riley countered. “I don’t agree with it. I feel like even right now, when something doesn’t go our way … it doesn’t look like last year. Not to the trained eye. Not to the coach.”

For their part, Grinch’s players didn’t throw him under the bus for what happened against the Buffs. 

“Coach Grinch, he’s doing a great job,” USC safety Bryson Shaw said. “We’re letting him down. Point blank. Period. We’re letting him down. I don’t know what to tell y’all. As players, we’re letting him down. He’s putting us in the right spots. We’re not making plays. We’re missing tackles. We’re not doing our job. I’m not doing my job. We’re letting him down.”

USC defended Grinch way better than it defended Colorado in the second half.

It sure doesn’t sound like Riley is going to make a mid-season change at defensive coordinator. I’m not sure he’d have a bunch of great options if he did decide to part ways with Grinch. Some other former OU assistants are on the staff, including outside linebackers coach Roy Manning and inside linebackers coach Brian Odom, though neither has any coordinator experience. No defensive assistant currently on the Trojan staff does.

So, improving the USC defense is on Grinch.

Now, he did make improvements to the OU defense during his three years in Norman. They weren’t big enough or numerous enough to turn the Sooners into an elite unit, though, and that’s what OU needed.

It’s what USC needs, too.

Grinch and his defense isn’t providing right now.

“We had opportunities to get the quarterback down. We had opportunities to tackle hitches for a 5-yard gain. The things that we did in the first half,” Riley said. “When you stop doing that, especially on the road against a team that has some talent like they do, they’re gonna make a run. And they did.

“You’ve gotta own those things. We have to be better at them.”

But … 

“There’s a lot that’s improved, and we’ve obviously gotta put it all together.”

Told you Riley hasn’t changed much.

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Jenni Carlson is a columnist with the Sellout Crowd network. Follow her on Twitter at @JenniCarlson_OK. Email [email protected].

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