As contenders fell and chaos reigned among the ruling class of college football, Tuli Tuipulotu stood amid the wreckage Saturday night with his arms raised in triumph. In that moment, it seemed perhaps USC, led by its star pass rusher, might have found some measure of progress on the defensive end.
The nadir of the Trojans’ past two games still loomed large over the unit. More than 1,100 yards were allowed in that span. Nearly 40 tackles were missed. A previously unblemished record and clear path to the College Football Playoff semifinals was lost in the process, raising further doubt about the trajectory of a Trojan defense struggling to stop anyone with so much as a pulse.
On a Saturday when half of the nation’s top six teams — No. 1 Tennessee, No. 4 Clemson and No. 6 Alabama — were all stopped dead in their tracks, USC nearly found itself among the fallen contenders. What began as an impressive bounce-back performance for the much-maligned unit nearly devolved into a nightmare before USC escaped with an 41-35 victory over California.
“We didn’t play our best,” USC coach Lincoln Riley said. “Really on any of the sides.”
Alex Grinch, USC’s defensive coordinator, went one step further.
“You want to vomit some of the issues we have 10 weeks into the season,” Grinch said of his defense.
As Tuipulotu threw down quarterback Jack Plummer for his second sack, the Trojans seemed to have found a cure for what ailed them. USC shut down Cal’s rushing attack, allowing a season-low 63 yards, and kept banged-up Cal quarterback Jack Plummer under duress, with Tuipulotu contributing two of three sacks.
But as time ticked down, Plummer kept finding holes in the Trojans secondary as he racked up 406 yards and three touchdowns through the air. Unable to put Cal away, USC grew increasingly impatient, Riley said. Breakdowns followed.
“That second half was really frustrating for us,” safety Calen Bullock said. “We know we’re giving up too many yards right now defensively. Before the game, we said we were going to go out and dominate.”
Instead, the Trojans nearly allowed 500-plus yards for the third consecutive week, this time capping the total at a mere 469.
Cal’s firepower was enough to keep USC on its toes late. A surprise onside kick and subsequent touchdown drive left the Bears down just seven points with nine minutes remaining, reminding of how quickly this USC defense can lose its grip.
“You get excited in the third quarter because you’re happy, then obviously you’re fighting for your life by the tail end of the game,” Grinch said.
If not for Caleb Williams, who once again carried USC with a 360-yard, four-touchdown performance, the Trojans might have let this one slip away. Alas, they would hang on.
Cal came out swinging from the start against USC’s reeling defense. Freshman running back Jaydn Ott ripped off a 22-yard gain to open the game, and Cal marched down the field in just five plays, the last of which saw Ott slip through multiple tackles on his way to the end zone.
But the Bears struggled mightily to move the ball from there until the third quarter. After the Trojans were trampled for 76 yards on that initial drive, they clamped down, holding Cal to just 88 over their next six. Ott, meanwhile, finished the first half with one fewer rushing yard than he’d gained on Cal’s opening drive, slowed by a suddenly stingy USC front seven.
The renewed effort on defense early was critical, considering USC’s electric offense didn’t always have its usual spark.
Williams still largely had his way with Cal’s defense, despite once again being without his top two receiving targets. He still found Tahj Washington (112 yards and a touchdown) and Michael Jackson III (115 yards and two touchdowns) in big moments and still conjured big plays through the air, completing 10 passes of 15 yards or more, including a 59-yard screen that Jackson took to the house.
There was little, though, that he could do about USC’s defense, which stands at a crossroads with just three games left in the regular season. Whether it has enough time to right the ship still remains to be seen.
But on a night when most of the top 10 was in flux, Riley reminded that USC was still able to leave Saturday with its eighth victory of the season. A rise in the College Football Playoff rankings should soon follow – even if little Saturday suggested that USC deserves to climb.
“My experience with these things,” Riley said, “is you get to the end and no one remembers how. You either found a way to win them or didn’t. The reality is this team is 8-1 with everything in front of us.”