Defense fails USC in epic collapse

ARLINGTON, Tex. – Alex Grinch wasn’t supposed to be the story of the Cotton Bowl.

The spotlight was supposed to be on Caleb Williams on a day where he took the field for the first time since winning the Heisman Trophy and showing why he was so deserving of the award.

Despite being less than 100 percent and passing up many of the running lanes he effortlessly burst through this season, Williams completed 37 of 52 passes for 462 yards and a Cotton Bowl-record five touchdowns. He led USC to a 45-30 led with a little over four minutes left in the fourth quarter.

USC’s first 12-win season since 2008 seemed like a lock. According to ESPN Stats & Information, teams were 1,692-1 when leading by 15 or more points with five minutes or less remaining over the past five seasons. Big leads and defense, however, don’t mean much when Lincoln Riley is roaming your sideline.

Within four minutes and seven seconds, USC’s historically insurmountable lead was gone as Tulane came back to improbably beat USC 46-45 in regulation. It was the third time this season, USC has lost a game after holding a two-touchdown lead and the sixth time it has happened to a Riley coached team since 2017, more than any other coach over that span.

Riley is in the first year of a long-term contract at USC. As disappointing as the ending of this season was, he did take a team that was 4-8 last year to an 11-win season, a New Year’s Six bowl game and for the third time since 2017 Riley coached his quarterback to a Heisman Trophy. He exceeded expectations in his first year on the job but the expectations for him and the team changed last month when USC entered the Pac-12 Championship Game against Utah as the No. 4 team in the country and one win away from the College Football Playoff.

Last year’s 4-8 season and the Clay Helton era is so far in the rearview mirror, we should really be past the point of trying to sugarcoat the last two losses of this season by reflecting on how far this team has come. USC fans have had plenty of time to reflect on how far this team has come through the first four month of the season. The last two losses of the season in which the team gave up 93 combined points and squandered leads of 14 or more points show how far the team has yet to go to be a championship team.

USC made the jump from last season to this season by making a coaching change and there’s little doubt that they will have to make a coaching change on the defensive side of the ball in order to make another jump before next season.

Grinch came to USC last year along with Riley last year. He has been Riley’s defensive coordinator since 2019 and anyone who followed Riley’s Oklahoma teams will tell you that’s not exactly something to brag about. Riley was hired because he is a an “offensive guru” and a “quarterback whisperer” and he lived up to that hype this season at USC. The problem is, he also lived up to his reputation of having a terrible defense, giving up big leads and collapsing in bowl games. Riley is now 1-4 in bowl games as a head coach.

Riley, of course, isn’t going anywhere but if USC is going to go anywhere past where they finished this season, he must part ways with Grinch. As much as Riley may like him and as much as USC’ defensive players defended him this season, there is really no returning after USC’s epic Cotton Bowl collapse.

Not only did USC give up 46 points to Tulane but they gave up over 10 yards per play after preparing for this game for a month. That’s right. That’s not a misprint. Every time Tulane snapped the ball, they averaged a first down in a New Year’s Six bowl game. That’s inexcusable.

Riley owes it to Williams to field a competent defense with a coordinator who can put his players in positions to succeed and at least teach them how to tackle properly and hold opponents to under 45 points. USC will have a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback and a high-powered offense next season. They just need a half-decent defense to help them compete for a national championship. The first step towards that goal is parting ways with Grinch. But will Riley do it?

“We just got done finishing the game 15 minutes ago,” Riley said after the game when asked about Grinch. “I’m not going to give big picture assessments… We made a pretty good jump in year one and I wouldn’t bet against us to make another big jump next year.”

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