LOS ANGELES – USC heads to Notre Dame on Saturday for its biggest game of the season the start of a stretch that will define the Trojans’ season.
Here are three takeaways from practice today:
The return of Branch?
USC freshman Zachariah Branch has been absent from the last two games due to an injury that has not been disclosed. On Thursday, Lincoln Riley was asked about Branch’s status for the upcoming game against Notre Dame, but he didn’t say anything that suggested the player would be able to participate.
Riley mentioned during a Thursday zoom call with the media that Branch’s condition is improving, but no decision has been made yet regarding his participation in Saturday’s game.
“He still hasn’t been a full participant yet. I do think he’s making progress,” Riley said. “We’ll kind of watch and see. He’s going to need to continue to make some jumps here to be ready for us, so hopefully he can continue to progress over the next few days. He’s at a better place than he was last week, but he’s not able to do everything yet. He’s eager, but we obviously want to be smart and make sure that we turn him loose at the right time.”
USC has been feeling the absence of Branch’s explosiveness on special teams for the past couple of weeks as Michael Jackson III has had more playing time. Although the offense is loaded with talented players in every position, it has become a challenge for Caleb Williams to involve everyone effectively.
The defense stepped up for Grinch
USC’s game against Arizona seemed like it was headed towards a blowout but not how anyone thought with unranked Arizona taking a 17-0 lead on USC in the first quarter. This week, USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch has faced a lot of criticism from the media, as his team allowed 41 points to Colorado and another 41 points to Arizona at home.
The defense, however, stepped up late and allowed the offense to catch up. Even Riley talked to the media about the defense’s shortcomings and how they are working to overcome them.
As USC embarks on the more challenging phase of their schedule, there is a growing concern about whether or not the team’s defensive problems can be resolved under Grinch. There are two significant problems that need to be addressed. First, there’s a considerable number of missed tackles, and second, the defensive backs have been struggling to make plays when the ball is in the air. One of the players responsible for the missed opportunities in the secondary was Domani Jackson, who will be returning to the field this Saturday per Riley.
Lincoln Riley defends his defense
Riley mentioned that if the team converted on a late chip-shot field goal against Arizona, the final score and the reaction to Saturday’s win would be different. When asked about the defense’s performance, Riley told the media “How much time you guys got?”
During his post-practice press conference, he talked for a few minutes about how his team’s defense performed well and deserved credit for it. He was also critical of the media and believed that the moment the defense faced adversity, the press had already made up their mind to attack them and Grinch.
“There’s a lot of great things happening here,” Riley said. “We will own the things that need to get better. People need to make sure they’re seeing the other side of it as well. That’s what we have been trying to say for a long time, we are venting a little bit of frustration with that to be completely honest.”
After Saturday’s win, Williams also praised the team’s defense and demanded that they get the respect they deserve for contributing to the team’s 6-0 record this season. Riley believes “there’s a lot of good things happening” on his team’s defense.