USC spring game shows the growth of Lincoln Riley

Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports
USC's spring game Saturday afternoon was dominated by the defense—a stark contrast from head coach Lincoln Riley's teams of the past.

LOS ANGELES — It’s easy to overreact to a spring game. They are, after all, essentially glorified intrasquad scrimmages. Starters see limited action, reserves play bigger roles, and play calling is often simplified.

Hence, it is hard to draw too many conclusions from USC’s spring game at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum Saturday. You can certainly analyze the performances of individual players and units, but to say anything definitive based on the 30 minutes of football that the Trojans played Saturday afternoon would be ill-advised.

After what we watched Saturday afternoon, however, it does seem like we can say one thing with relative certainty: this isn’t your older brother’s Lincoln Riley-coached football team.

In the past, Riley’s teams have been notorious for playing great offense and very little defense. This was on full display the past two seasons, when USC averaged over 41 points per game in both campaigns, but failed to win a conference title due to several untimely defensive collapses.

Saturday, however, was the complete opposite. The defense dominated Saturday’s spring game, forcing five turnovers while allowing only four offensive scores. The result was a 43-28 defensive victory, based on the scoring system devised by Riley.

After an embarrassing 52-42 loss to Washington last November in which the Trojans allowed nearly 600 yards of total offense, Riley fired embattled defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. This offseason, he brought in new DC D’Anton Lynn, as well as an almost entirely new defensive staff.

It is obviously way too soon to know whether the new staff will be successful or not. For all we know, they could have merely taken advantage of a really bad day by the offense. But after Saturday’s glaring result, it seems safe to say that the Trojans aren’t going to be playing in nearly as many shootouts akin to the Washington game in 2024.

In the past, it has felt as though Riley’s teams have taken on strategy of simply trying to outscore the other team. With Heisman Trophy-winning quarterbacks such as Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray, and Caleb Williams under center, Riley was confident enough in his teams’ ability to score that he did not make defense a high priority.

But after USC struggled to an incredibly disappointing 8-5 campaign with Williams at the helm in 2023, Riley seemed to change his philosophy. Throughout the offseason, the coach has stressed the newfound emphasis that the Trojans are placing on defense. The assistant coaching hires that Riley made only confirmed this shift.

This does not necessarily mean that USC is going to be a better team in 2024. For all we know, the Trojans could go 8-5 again, or even worse. But if USC does flop this fall, it won’t be because they pushed defense to the back-burner.

It is far too early to know what the Trojans are going to look like this fall. But one thing feels certain: this team is going to look drastically different than the seven others coached by Riley in his still relatively young head coaching career.

This isn’t your older brother’s Lincoln Riley team.