USC’s humbled defense uses bye week to work on tackling

LOS ANGELES — When practice ended Tuesday, USC linebacker Shane Lee was the last man on the field. He methodically would situate a weighted bag upright, get into position, then tackle the dummy. Then he repeated the entire process.

It’s not something you’d expect to see a senior like Lee doing. But after a 43-42 loss to Utah in which he missed five tackles, and USC as a whole missed 18, you get back to the basics.

For defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, that process started immediately after Saturday’s loss. On the bus to the airport, Grinch pulled out his iPad and began watching the post-mortem.

“It stings, it burns,” Grinch said. “You work your tail off, and these guys do, and the coaching staff does. And we understand the expectations at USC and we understand when we don’t get the outcomes that we want, it’s on us.”

Any which way you slice it, the game was a disaster for the USC defense. From 562 yards allowed to three first downs by penalty to a single tackle for loss to 148 yards after the catch, 79 by Utes tight end Dalton Kincaid alone.

There are many factors that led to those numbers, from failures to complete sacks in the backfield to blown coverage. But most of the disappointments come back to missed tackles, which is why veterans like Lee focused on that this week in practice.

“Finishing,” Lee said of the cause. “For different people, it might mean different things, but running your feet, wrapping strong, driving your feet on contact. Fundamentals, just getting back to the basics.”

Prior to Week 7, the USC defense had exceeded expectations and been a major contributor to the Trojans’ 6-0 start. The team led the nation in sacks and turnovers forced after six weeks. Which is perhaps why the losing effort versus Utah shocked the unit to its core.

Grinch and head coach Lincoln Riley emphasized that one bad performance doesn’t erase the effort from the first six games. But with a week off prior to another road game at Arizona, the Trojans have been afforded some time to reflect.

“If we own it, we have a chance to do something about it,” Grinch said. “If we do the excuses or, ‘Well, maybe we were close,’ so you feel better, we don’t feel good right now. We don’t. The double-edged sword of a bye week is we don’t have to feel good yet. We don’t have to flip the script yet.”

In other circumstances, USC might have taken the bye week easy and given its starters a chance to heal and rest. But that idea was dismissed with the need to work on tackling becoming so urgent.

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“There’s no balance. We gotta clean it up,” Riley said. “If we’re healthy but not tackling well, it doesn’t matter.”

Which is why Lee, with a soft cast around his left hand, was out late Tuesday getting in some extra practice with a tackling dummy. But the captain cautioned against any overreactions from his teammates.

“I don’t think we need to abandon ship or anything like that,” the Alabama transfer said. “I just think we need to tighten the hatches and bear down and really just dig into the details and focus in.”

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