Alex Grinch knows how this sounds. The fans who already were calling for the USC defensive coordinator’s job before watching the No. 6 Trojans give up 28 points to San José State in their season opener Saturday probably aren’t interested in it anyway.
But yes, Grinch is still “very bullish” on his defense.
“It sounds like coach speak if you play the way we played and get too positive, but percentage is way tilted in the positive direction,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not really a rose-colored-glasses type of guy, but you can’t ignore that. The percentage of plays I thought we played at a high level were obviously good.”
Breaking in a rebuilt defense that started four transfers and one freshman, the Trojans (1-0) did little to sway skeptical fans who were hoping to erase the memories of back-to-back losses to end last season, which was marked by defensive failures.
The Spartans, playing without Mountain West preseason all-conference receiver Justin Lockhart who missed the game because of undisclosed reasons, surpassed their scoring average of 27.4 points from last season when they finished 7-5. A miscommunication in the secondary resulted in a blown coverage that allowed San José State to go into halftime down just seven points after a 28-yard touchdown pass with eight seconds remaining. After preaching the importance of finishing strong, the Trojans gave up rushes of 57 and 36 yards in the fourth quarter.
Yet Grinch and coach Lincoln Riley were encouraged by Sunday’s film session, acknowledging it was just the first game. Riley noted the push generated by the defensive line, on which USC started transfers Anthony Lucas, Bear Alexander and Kyon Barrs.
Even with the more physical defensive front, the scheme that thrives on getting to the quarterback and forcing takeaways generated just one sack and no turnovers.
“It’s almost likened to a basketball coach, where you kind of feel like you got the open shot but you didn’t make it,” Grinch said. “But why on earth do we think we’re not going to make it the next time? So continue to put the work in, continue to rep these guys and get ‘em going. Obviously, I don’t believe that that’s our best yet, and obviously extremely disappointed by some of the numbers. And we gotta go from there.”
Alexander was a standout after the coaching staff watched the film. The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Georgia transfer impacted the game well beyond his official stat line of a lone tackle, which was a shared 11-yard sack with Solomon Byrd, and one pass breakup.
“You didn’t feel his presence as much in the stat sheet,” Riley said, “but when you turned on the film on Sunday, you could see that presence.”
Alexander was among those who Riley thought best maximized their snaps, but noted “one big mental mistake” on a third-and-22 play in the first quarter.
USC brought pressure, rushing five players with another — linebacker Mason Cobb — playing close to the line of scrimmage to match up against the running back. Alexander lined up on the outside shoulder of the left guard and rushed by cutting slightly back inside, opening the entire left side for Spartans quarterback Chevan Cordeiro. The Mountain West preseason offensive player of the year rushed for 28 yards.
Back on the field Tuesday, Alexander couldn’t escape the miscue.
“Fix those things the next practice so you don’t make that mistake again,” he said with a bashful smirk. “Not rush that 3-tech from that B gap next time, for sure.”
Key missed plays remained at the forefront for several players at practice. Cornerback Domani Jackson dropped what would have been his first career interception, and while he emphasized the “great read” that put him in position to make the play, his teammates still hadn’t stopped teasing him about “dropping money.”
Rush end Jamil Muhammad rued what could have been a strip sack. It’s “still been eating me up,” the Georgia State transfer said.
“But,” he added, “I’m going to definitely make up for it.”
Facing more scrutiny every week, Grinch has work to do too.