I drove home from USC’s second loss of what was supposed to be a special season, and did not think of all of the problems I had with the defense in this particular game. I’ll get to those in a minute. This season, with the returning Heisman winner poised for a second Heisman in a row – Caleb Williams, dubbed “Superman” by some, and definitely showing of it on many occasions in his illustrious college career thus far – was supposed to be special. A second Heisman. A College Football Playoff potential berth in the final season of the traditional 4 team finals format. USC’s last season in the Pac-12. There are more storylines that will go into the writer’s circular file than can be counted.
This season, with the returning Heisman winner was supposed to be special. A second Heisman. A College Football Playoff berth. USC’s last season in the Pac-12.
Back to my drive home to Pasadena from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, however. I was left thinking of penning a “Dear Lincoln, ..” letter much like U.S. President’s leave a letter for their successor when they follow them into executive office. What wisdom could I instill in Lincoln Riley to help him? Not what went wrong with this game. Sure, there was going for 2, twice, when going for 1 would have put Utah’s field goal to win the game in the closing seconds as merely a field goal to tie the game, rather than win it. Sure, there was the devolving of the offense back to bubble screen after bubble screen, and going away from the run that USC’s offense so desperately needed to establish some semblance of a passing game that doesn’t involve Caleb Williams holding the ball for too long, and then running for his life and rushing into a forced throw. There was the getting the ball back with approximately 2 minutes left, and then scoring so fast, that they gave Utah enough time to march down the field and kick the winning field goal. Those are the in-game pieces of advice I’d love to tell Lincoln. But that’s not what would be part of my letter.
I thought long and hard about this, and my letter would go something like:
Dear Lincoln Riley, As someone who has carefully observed USC since 1996 on my way to 3 degrees, a Full Professorship as an Adjunct in the Viterbi School of Engineering, and a voracious consumer of USC offense, defense, special teams, and games alike, including highs, and lows, and even helping the team with some data science, fixing USC's defensive woes have so much more to do with the following things than this particular game. Follow along with me.
Stop recruiting cornerbacks that don't mirror or match the wide receivers that they have to cover. Sure we have speedsters, but they are constantly out of position, focused on making a useless and penalty drawing "highlight hit" than stopping the defender, and most of the time and most importantly the defenders are always left watching the opposing playmakers catching jump balls over their heads.
Please instill into your players that celebrating after a routine defensive play or as we call in the professional world "doing your job" when you are down 15+ points is ridiculous, cringe worthy stuff, and shows the lack of discipline, and the lack of being a champion. I understand in the modern Tik Tok era the need for "film" and "highlights" to be labeled as content, and put out to your audiences, but stop doing it. You think Nick Saban puts up with celebrations on defense when his team is down 15? Make the play and return to the huddle, please.
Teach your players to play the ball, and not the big hit. Cornerbacks, linebackers, safeties, always go for the big hit, and let the receivers catch the ball with 5-10 yard cushion in front of them. You can go back through 10 years of defensive footage, independent of 4+ defensive coordinators, and 4+ coaches. It's all the same. Big "boom" rather than methodical and needed ball play.
Please go get the 2nd and 3rd string players on defense from the SEC, and convince them to come to USC. Our defensive line looks about half the size as all of the other offensive lines they play against. A few standouts over the years notwithstanding, our guys are constantly overmatched, and playing against people two or three times their size.
Instill the "team" mentality in your defense, and not the "me me me, I, I, I" TikTok philosophy. Less dancing with DJ Mal-Ski, who is likely a great person, but admittedly is not really concerned as much with the game as he is with the fan/audience engagement in-between plays. Instead, teach your defense to be "in the game", and to play together.
USC's defense will never take us back to the playoffs until these are addressed. I'm not saying fire your defensive coordinator. I'm asking you to rethink how USC builds its defensive program. It's going to take more than than any one game, and it may not be fully implemented until after Caleb Williams has made his way into the NFL so you can't rely on Superman to save the day. Signed, Chris Mattmann, USC Fan
And that’s it folks. I’m not calling for defensive coordinator Alex Grinch to be fired. I’m not saying what could have been done in this Utah game, or the Notre Dame game. I’m saying: go back to the drawing board on your defensive foundations USC. Pete Caroll’s ghost or not, Pete got that USC needed a playoff caliber defense to win championships. USC won’t get back to the College Football Playoffs until they realize that.