Column: USC’s defense is again the reeking stain on Lincoln Riley’s regime

Tulane's Alex Bauman catches the winning touchdown pass as USC's Eric Gentry defends.
Tulane’s Alex Bauman catches the game-winning touchdown pass as USC’s Eric Gentry tackles him during the Cotton Bowl Classic on Monday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Tulane won 46-45.
(Ron Jenkins / Getty Images)

The ending at frantic AT&T Stadium looked like much of the stunning 30 minutes that preceded it.

Tulane players running wildly across the field, swarming from sideline to sideline, sprinting unimpeded and uninhibited.

USC players just standing there.


Tulane players bouncing in circles around the turf and each other, leaping, lunging, loopy.

USC players staring at them through tears.

An ESPN television reporter asked Tulane coach Willie Fritz what just happened.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

Oh, on the contrary, in the wake of Tulane’s shocking 46-45 upset of USC in Monday’s Cotton Bowl, it’s clear what just happened.

The reeking stain in Lincoln Riley’s regime happened. The bane of the USC fan’s existence happened. The Trojans’ weekly embarrassment, monthly humiliation, and season-long disgrace happened.

The USC defense happened.

Just wondering, but how much of offensive genius Riley’s estimated $10-million annual salary is being paid for him to coach the other side of the ball?


The first season of the Lincoln Riley era at USC ended in disaster, with the Trojans giving up a 15-point lead late in a Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane.

Jan. 2, 2023

Apparently, nothing, because that’s what his defense did for the umpteenth game in completing this team’s startling tumble from the doorstep of the College Football Playoff semifinals to a pitiable pile of smoking wreckage.

Remember their most recent debacle, the 533 total yards given up by the Trojans during a second-half collapse against Utah in the Pac-12 championship?

That was Wild Bunch stuff compared to Monday afternoon, when the tire tracks were deep and indelible across a defense that gave up 539 yards while helping blow a 15-point lead in the final four-and-a-half minutes.

Seriously, this might be the worst defense in USC football history. The Trojans can’t tackle. They can’t cover.

They. Can’t. Stop. Anybody.

One moment, Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams was hugging and slapping on the sidelines while reveling in the masterpiece of his young career, 462 passing yards and five passing touchdowns on a tender hamstring.

USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs with the ball during the first half.
USC quarterback Caleb Williams runs with the ball during the first half of the Cotton Bowl against Tulane on Monday in Arlington, Texas.
(Sam Hodde / Associated Press)

The next moment, Williams was sitting helplessly on the bench, staring at the sky as his defensive teammates were getting pummeled into a messy pool of cardinal and gold.

One moment, the Trojans and their unstoppable offense were in control, their lead was 45-30, the overmatched and outmanned Green Wave were exhausted, this game was over.

The next moment, the Trojan defense gave up a touchdown after a 59-yard pass completion from Tulane quarterback Michael Pratt to Duece Watts. Soon thereafter, USC gave up the winning touchdown on a six-yard pass from Pratt to Alex Bauman at the end of a 66-yard drive with no timeouts that included two fourth-down conversions.

That’s right, two fourth-down conversions.

In the middle of all that, the Trojans’ Mario Williams mishandled a kickoff that led to an eventual safety, but please, don’t blame the kid or the offense.

This was about a defense that brutally chipped all the shine off another offensive gem. This was about a defense that threatened Riley’s coaching credibility in Oklahoma and is doing so again.

Riley will surely make offseason changes to his defensive leadership beginning with embattled coordinator Alex Grinch, right? Riley surely realizes he is risking the ruination of the final season of arguably the greatest quarterback in USC history by forcing Williams to tote this unsightly defensive baggage, correct?

USC coach Lincoln Riley talks with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.
USC coach Lincoln Riley, left, talks with defensive coordinator Alex Grinch during a practice on the campus of USC.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

For the record, it is completely absurd to think that Williams’ representatives would march into Riley’s office this week and demand defensive changes or the quarterback will enter the transfer portal.

Or is it?

“It’s going to linger … it’s going to burn,” Williams told reporters after Monday’s nightmare.

Whatever happens within the program, tolerating a defense that began the day ranked 119th out of 131 FBS teams is unfair to Williams, unfair to USC fans and a dereliction of the responsibility that goes with that giant contract bestowed on Riley when he took the job last winter.

He’s supposed to coach the whole team, OK? Anything less and Riley isn’t fulfilling the vow he made to turn the Trojans into championship contenders.

After one season, despite transforming the program from 4-8 to 11-3, that remains a promise unkept.


“As tough a loss as I can remember in my entire career,” Riley said. “We obviously put ourselves in phenomenal position to get it done.”

They did. They scored the first two times they possessed the ball, bullying blocking, receivers open, Williams brilliant and at one point in the second quarter, they had outgained Tulane, 185-21.

But then the defense was pushed, and, as feared, it promptly folded.

Tulane running back Tyjae Spears runs with the ball as USC defensive lineman Nick Figueroa defends.
Tulane running back Tyjae Spears (22) runs with the ball as USC defensive lineman Nick Figueroa (99) defends during the first half of the Cotton Bowl on Monday in Arlington, Texas.
(Sam Hodde / Associated Press)

“Offense is out there, they know they have to make a play, so the defense can’t sit on their heels to get a stop,” defensive lineman Nick Figueroa said. “No, you have to make a play.”

The Trojans did not. Instead, in a variety of ways, they were played.

Tulane scored after a 40-yard run by Pratt. Tulane scored again to tie the score on an 87-yard pass to Jha’Quan Jackson.

USC scored twice before halftime to take another 14-point lead, but in the second half, its defense simply could not close the deal, giving up huge plays in huge situations.


Runs of 47 yards and 62 yards by Tyjae Spears led to touchdowns that kept the Green Wave close before they finally demoralized USC in the end. Overall, Spears gained 205 yards, Tulane ran for 305 yards and Riley said that was the difference.

“Our tackling hurt us against a good back,” Riley said. “That was the story. That’s the entire game right there.”

Though Riley was careful not to openly criticize Grinch or any defender individually, he acknowledged that he was concerned about all those gashing runs and long passes.

College football’s national championship game between top-ranked Georgia and a never-give-up TCU squad will provide plenty of L.A.-caliber entertainment.

Dec. 31, 2022

“We gave up the big plays … no tackling to the level that we expect … very, very alarming … something we’ve got to do a much better job of,” he said.

That job starts with him. That job starts now.

He has a quarterback who deserves a shot at a national championship. He has a fan base that deserves a return to sustained greatness. He needs to stop waxing about the success of their one-year turnaround and realize nobody is going to be happy unless he can finish the job by building a defense that can finish the game.

Until he does, there is no difference between Lincoln Riley and the passel of failed USC coaches that preceded him.


“There is a ton of great momentum in this program,” Riley claimed. “Today’s result, as sick as it is, does not change that. The reality is that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”

If he doesn’t fix the defense, he’s exactly right.

The USC football program, once again, isn’t going anywhere.