Three weeks later, it all still haunts Alex Grinch. The missed tackles, the dropped interceptions, the blown lead.
The defensive collapse against Utah that cost USC a Pac-12 championship and its spot in the College Football Playoff is still fresh in the defensive coordinator’s mind.
“We didn’t finish,” Grinch said Thursday after practice. “And we haven’t done that for 13 games, by and large. It didn’t hurt us in 11 of them and it hurt us in two and that’s why we’re not champions right now. So it’s really disappointing and sometimes you gotta lose a game to maybe land the message but man, championship ball games, you don’t get a lot of those opportunities.”
The Trojans get a chance to atone for their defensive sins by finishing their season on a positive note against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.
The New Year’s Six bowl — the program’s first since 2017 — feels like an insignificant consolation prize to what USC nearly accomplished. Had they avenged their regular-season loss to Utah with a conference championship, the Trojans would have been in the Playoff. The offense, led by Heisman-winning quarterback Caleb Williams, had the firepower to carry them there. But the defense lagged, putting extra emphasis on the bowl game for a unit that has something to prove.
“People feel like we’re overrated, I would say,” safety Calen Bullock said, “so we’re just trying to go out there and show the world what we’re capable of and finishing.”
Opponents outscored the Trojans 130-128 in the fourth quarter this year, the only period in which USC did not have a scoring advantage. Utah won the fourth quarter 38-14 in its two victories over USC, including a 23-7 advantage in the Pac-12 championship game that turned a three-point game with 10:52 remaining into a blowout.
Utah capitalized on 24 USC missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. The failed tackles turned into long touchdowns for the Utes, who scored on plays of 60, 53 and 23 yards in the fourth quarter. Bullock missed a touchdown-saving tackle that would have kept USC within three points when tight end Thomas Yassmin shrugged the sophomore safety off at the 13-yard line and crushed the momentum from USC’s comeback attempt.
Like Grinch, Bullock said he is still frustrated by the team’s inability to finish the critical game down the stretch. A year after the coaching change, there’s no number of pep talks or drills that can save the Trojans from the blown tackles. It’s just up to players to execute.
“A lot of it is mentality and want-to as opposed to just technique,” Grinch said. “If we use great technique, so they just fall down for us? No, it doesn’t work that way. You gotta be dialed into it and you gotta want to get him on the ground.”
In following head coach Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma, Grinch was tasked with saving a defense that set school records for futility in points allowed (31.8 per game) and yards allowed (6.5 per play). He coached the Pac-12 defensive player of the year with Tuli Tuipulotu, but USC’s defensive performance only improved slightly to 27.9 points allowed and 6.3 yards allowed per play.
“It’s a good steppingstone for where we need to go,” defensive lineman Nick Figueroa said. “It’s a process. Stuff’s not going to happen overnight but there’s been a lot of progress and sometimes maybe it doesn’t always manifest on the field … but I know that we’re in the position we want to be moving forward.”
Grinch is familiar with trying to rebuild a unit in shambles. When he took over at Oklahoma, the Sooners were ranked 101st in the country in scoring defense, allowing 33.3 points per game. During Grinch’s first year, they improved to 27.3 points allowed per game. At Washington State, he took a Cougar defense from 38.6 points allowed to 27.7 in his first season.
But the immediate improvement rarely continued enough to make the leap into the nation’s elite. At 21.7 points allowed, the 2020 Sooners are the only one of Grinch’s defenses to give up less than 25 points per game for a whole season. No team in the past two years has made the Playoff allowing more than 25 points per game.