ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Southern California has created more turnovers and had more sacks in its first season with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. The Trojans have still given up a lot of yards and points, though they lost to only one team.
“You're charged with having a championship-level defense at USC,” Grinch said. “We played good-enough defense 11 times. We didn’t play good-enough defense two times. But I don’t take a lot of solace in that. We are expected to have a championship-level defense."
The Trojans (11-2) have one more chance to win a title this season. They play in the Cotton Bowl on Monday against American Athletic Conference champion Tulane (11-2), which has a high-powered offense that does a good job of taking care of the football.
USC missed out on a spot in the four-team College Football Playoff after allowing 533 total yards and a season-high 47 points in a loss to Utah in the Pac-12 championship game. The Utes gained 562 yards when they beat the Trojans 43-42 in mid-October.
The Trojans have forced eight more turnovers than in 2021 and lead the nation with a +1.69 turnover margin, Their 36 sacks equal their total from the previous two seasons combined. But there were still 100 teams that allowed fewer than the 415 total yards a game they did, and they ranked 82nd in the nation in allowing nearly 28 points a game.
“I feel like the chemistry is there. I think there’s some times where the communication may be off or we might not be doing the right assignments for certain stuff,” AP All-America edge rusher Tuli Tuipulotu said.
Over the last seven games, one-win Colorado was the only opponent that didn’t throw for at least 300 yards and multiple touchdowns against USC. But the Trojans also have 19 interceptions this season.
“If you’re not careful, you’ll default to being okay just being okay,” Grinch said. “So it pains me to say that that’s what we’ve been the bulk of the year. We’re still learning. You try to bend reality to the situation that you’re in. We had an opportunity to play for a championship. And we couldn’t bend reality far enough to get that thing done.”
Tulane piled up a season-high 648 total yards in a 45-28 win over UCF in the American Athletic Conference championship game. Green Wave quarterback Michael Pratt had 442 total yards and five touchdowns and Tyjae Spears ran 199 yards with a 60-yard TD to extend his FBS-best active streak to seven 100-yard games in a row.
Pratt knows USC is good at getting pressure on quarterbacks, and forcing turnovers.
“I think their strongest suit is they have a bunch of athletes all over the field. They move around well,” Pratt said. “But I think ... they leave a lot of open gaps and give up some opportunities for some big plays.”
Grinch went to the West Coast with coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, where the Sooners improved significantly between his first and second seasons as their defensive coordinator.
“Do you build a program in 12 months? You wish you can. I don’t know specifically if you can build a defense in 12 months. I don’t know if you can build a defense in five years because it’s onward. It’s different. It’s ever-changing," Grinch said. “But that’s the challenge. ... And the progress hasn’t shown up enough on Saturdays. But believe me, we’re excited about where this thing’s going.”
During the extended time since the Pac-12 championship game, senior linebacker Shane Lee said the Trojans put an emphasis on getting back to fundamentals.
"I think this last month has been really important for us, especially after our last game we played," sophomore safety Calen Bullock said. “We know that’s not us that we put on film. So we’ve just been out here trying to take it in each and every day and go out there and just execute everything the coaching staff teaches and really basically just go out there and have fun with each other.”
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