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    Lincoln Riley emphatically challenges public criticism of USC’s defense
    • October 11, 2023

    LOS ANGELES — The kettle has been boiling for two weeks now, small hints bubbling that these USC Trojans are not only well aware of public criticism of their polarizing defensive unit – and the man leading it – but a bit ticked off by it.

    You had safety Bryson Shaw, after the Colorado game, vehemently defending defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. You had quarterback Caleb Williams, as head coach Lincoln Riley was asked Saturday about his trust in Grinch, shaking his head and smirking slightly in disdain at the question. And you had Williams, after Saturday’s 43-41 barnburner over Arizona, lean into the postgame mic to follow up a defensive question to Riley and say “we wouldn’t have won that game without defense.”

    “This, this whole,” Williams said then, sighing for a moment, “defense thing.”

    This whole defense thing, indeed, is peanut gallery fodder week after week, the public seeing ugly results (back-to-back 40-point games surrendered! 109th out of 130 FBS teams in yards allowed per game!) and teeing off not-so-hot-takes on this USC unit. After exiting last year on the hot seat, comments calling for Grinch’s job have reached a fervor. Some of the public’s ire has started to turn on Riley for his continued support of Grinch.

    On Tuesday, when asked if he felt there were defensive improvements that people weren’t quite understanding, Riley turned the ire right back, the most impassioned he’s been in front of reporters all season.

    “Oh, there’s, how long do you got?” he said, making the point that if USC hadn’t missed an end-of-regulation kick to put Arizona away, the game’s narrative would have revolved around the defense’s second-half strides.

    “Here’s the deal, everybody in the media had their mind made up – I won’t generalize, a lot of people in the media had their mind made up, that the first second there was any adversity this year it was, like,” Riley said, widening his eyes and throwing his hands in the air, “‘Oh my God, they should have done this, and they should have made this change,’ and blah blah blah.”

    “And it’s not true … that’s going to be continued to be written throughout the entire year, but there’s a lot of great things happening here,” Riley continued, “and we’ll own the things we need to get better, but people need to make sure they’re seeing the other side of it as well. And that’s what we’ve been trying to say for a long time, and I think both myself and Caleb and some other players were venting a little bit of frustration with that, to be completely honest.”

    “Y’all didn’t think y’all were getting all that,” Riley eventually finished, to laughs.

    Indeed, probably not. But Riley’s comments Tuesday – accompanied by a great deal more vocal heft and hand-waving – were a direct continuation of comments last week, when he disagreed with an assessment that defensive issues looked the same as last season. Not “to the trained eye,” he said then.

    The question, rapidly, has become what is Riley seeing in this defense that the layman doesn’t. What is Grinch seeing, to keep expressing the same percentage-tilted-positive optimism of the defense’s play. And in truth, the positives are aplenty – a much-improved defensive front, fearsome sack numbers and enough timely plays made to seal victories over Arizona State, Colorado and Arizona.

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    “I mean, this is a unit that, I think, when you talk about the top-end potential, has a chance to really grow and get better fast … there are a lot of good things happening on this defense, man,” said Riley, whose 10th-ranked team is 6-0 overall and 4-0 in Pac-12 play.

    There are a lot of things, too, though, that simply don’t measure as results. Failing to stop Colorado’s passing game in that second half. Folding to Arizona’s offense in the first 20 minutes, as Grinch mentioned the defense’s lack of execution in clogging up yardage to start. Making only marginal improvements from last year in points allowed per game (27 to 29.2).

    And that’s before the Trojans face Notre Dame, Washington, and Oregon.

    “I can promise you, inside these walls, there is no expectation other than to play high-level in the second half of this year,” Riley said.

    His stance Tuesday, rooted in a clear belief in Grinch and his players, was a gamble of sorts: a gamble on that improvement, that this stone-castle public defense against a pitchforked mob will hold true come December.

    ​ Orange County Register