USC wins opener, but Lincoln Riley must fix the damn defense

The USC football opener against San José State on Saturday could be best described by the sound that often descended upon the heavily populated Coliseum throughout a furiously emotional evening.


It was that damn defense.

What was the deal with the Trojan defense? Wasn’t this defense supposed to be revamped? Wasn’t this defense supposed to be, you know, better?

The Trojans won 56-28, but the defense lost again. And again. And again.

The unit that dragged the team to consecutive defeats at the end of last season looked like the same battered burden. The unit that allowed an average of 432 yards per game last season allowed 396 yards in big chunks.

The defense was outfought. The defense was outplayed. The offseason promises that the retained defensive coordinator Alex Grinch would engineer a rebound were not kept.

Honestly, sometimes they still can’t even tackle.

So throughout the night, the Trojans were mostly surrounded by silence, from fans who were so flabbergasted they couldn’t even boo.

Afterward, Coach Lincoln Riley, surely weary of defending his pal Grinch, displayed equal parts resignation and frustration that this is once again an issue.

I asked him if he was already concerned about the defense. He sighed.

“Here we go, everybody’s gonna write the narrative after the first game,” he said. “Listen, it’s gonna be a climb. … It’s gonna be a climb.”

Isn’t that what he said last year?

He insisted this year’s squad is different.

“I like what I see out there in terms of our good plays and how our guys are flying around and the depth that we have … We will continue to improve,” he said. “The baseline for that group, the ceiling for that group, is much higher than it was 12 months ago.”

He is standing behind his personnel, and one assumes that still means Grinch.

“No matter what the score was, there’s gonna be that climb in the next step … that’s where our focus is gonna stay,” he said. “I love what we have in there … a lot of work to do, and we have the right people to get it done.”

Yep, he also said that last year.

The opening night malaise wasn’t all due to the defense. Aside from introducing a freshman flash named Zachariah Branch, Week Zero generally tasted like Coke Zero.

It was just OK. And for those wanting the real thing, it’s not going to get the job done.

In his first chance to defend his Heisman Trophy, Caleb Williams was pulled in the fourth quarter, after which he said he spent the rest of the game walking the sidelines talking to the other team leaders and delivering a word of warning.

“The message was, we got a special team,” Williams said. “The second part of the message was … we’ve got a long way to go and a lot to get better at.”

Yes, USC wound up gaining 501 total yards. But most of their offensive momentum was generated by the highly touted Branch with his darting 25-yard touchdown catch and breathtaking 96-yard touchdown kickoff return.

Games like this aren’t going to win a second Heisman for Williams, who was 18 for 25 for 278 yards and four touchdowns. Throughout the night he struggled to find open receivers, held the ball too long while looking for the home run throw and took unnecessary hits.

“Walking off the field, there’s a bit of frustration,” Williams said.

Games like this also aren’t going to save the job of Grinch. Among other broken coverages and tackles, his defense allowed a 57-yard run and touchdown catches of 28 and 32 yards.

“There’s a lot to work on,” said linebacker Mason Cobb. “The sky’s the limit, you’ve seen those plays when we were all on our stuff … just trying to make sure we limit those mistakes.”

He concluded, “I think a lot of it was self-inflicted … we have a lot of work to do … a lot of work to do.”

Cobb played at Oklahoma State last year, so he had no way of knowing this but … yes sir, the defenders said the same things last year.

And to think, this being Week Zero, it was an early gimme-game with few teams playing and everybody watching. This could have been the season’s opening salvo that the sixth-ranked Trojans deserve higher regard.

This was the perfect time for USC to make a statement, but it did not. There was no exclamation point here. There were only repetitive question marks.

You want a statement? Check out No. 13 Notre Dame’s 42-3 win over Navy. Now that said something.

“From a consistency standpoint, it wasn’t there,” said Riley. “I like the way some of the young guys flew around. … We had some young guys make some young guy mistakes, too.”

And to think, it was all set up for a beautifully dominant Saturday afternoon, beginning with a Williams Heisman video followed by former cornerback Terrell Thomas leading the team out of the tunnel after screaming, “It’s war time! Let’s get this party crackin’!”

Something was cracking all right. It was the same unit that was last seen collapsing against Utah in December and Tulane in January, a group that allowed nearly 2,000 yards in the final four games.

At the end of the first quarter, the Trojans allowed the Spartans to embark on a 72-yard touchdown drive that featured numerous blown assignments and missed tackles.

Then, at the end of the second quarter, the Spartans struck suddenly against blown coverage with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Cordeiro to a wide-open Nick Nash.

“Inexcusable,” said Riley.

Then in the third quarter the Trojan defense struck again by allowing a 75-yard Spartan drive that ended with an incredible diving catch by Nash ahead of a jersey-tugging Ceyair Wright for a 32-yard touchdown.

Finally, in the closing minutes, the Trojans allowed an 85-yard drive in four plays for one more Spartan touchdown and … are you sure this wasn’t Tulane?

“A lot to be excited about, but a lot of work to do,” said Riley.

Fine. Just fix the damn defense.