USC’s defense has overachieved, but is it sustainable?

LOS ANGELES — Entering the season, USC’s defense was the prevailing question for the team in Lincoln Riley’s first season. Everyone knew the offense was going to score plenty of points, but would a patchwork defense be able to hold up its end of the bargain?

Through two games, we’ve seen the beginnings of an answer, and it’s allowed the 2-0 Trojans to ascend to No. 7 in the latest AP poll.

USC is first nationally in turnover margin with an 8-0 mark. The Trojans are third nationally in sacks with 4.5 per game and fifth in tackles for loss at 10 per game.

These are the types of categories that coaches, especially USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, focus on to determine how successful a defense is. But while this performance has been a pleasant surprise, it doesn’t disguise areas where this unit still needs to improve.

“I’ve caught myself talking to Coach Riley in particular, saying, ‘To our standard – ok, what is our standard?’” Grinch wondered out loud after practice Wednesday. “We’re trying to establish that. The brand of USC determines by and large what that standard is and it’s a lot higher than what we’ve done so far. So you attack that.”

The area of greatest concern for USC is how opponents have been able to move the ball. The Trojans are allowing 360.5 yards per game, 72nd nationally in the statistic. That drops to 106th when you only look at rushing yards allowed per contest.

This is an area where Grinch is still looking for answers. He and his staff consider whether mistakes are mental errors or missed assignments or miscommunications on the field.

“It’s unacceptable, it’s not good enough and we know that. It’s something that we continue to evaluate,” he said. “It leads to points which in the end puts us in a situation where the offense needs to score more.”

Where USC takes some degree of comfort is that it only allows 21 points per game.

“The thing is, yards don’t mean points,” linebacker Shane Lee said. “Our goal is definitely to eliminate the yards that they get, but they’re not scoring. We gotta pride ourselves on not breaking.”

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One reason for this has been USC’s propensity for turnovers, especially in the red zone. There was Calen Bullock’s interception at the 8-yard line against Rice, Mekhi Blackmon’s end zone interception against Stanford and Max Williams’ forced fumble against the Cardinal.

Some of those turnovers have been a product of luck; tipped passes by receivers that landed in defensive backs’ hands. This raises the question of whether this current level of production is sustainable for the USC defense.

“We take the approach that the ball has no idea it’s supposed to go from the quarterback to the receiver,” Grinch said. “So the messaging is 100% we control it, 100% of the time.”

When asked directly if he thought USC could continue with this level of forced turnovers, “Tell me why we can’t. You gotta think that way. You’re not a passive member of the game of football, you’re an active member. So we choose to have that approach, that it’s controllable.”

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