LOS ANGELES (AP) — Southern California’s defensive performance in a 42-28 win at Arizona State on Saturday brought back a lot of the concerns about the unit from last season.
There was sloppy tackling and a lack of situational awareness on critical plays. There was fourth-quarter yardage allowed, 125 yards worth this time. And there was a general sense that if not for some timely takeaways and sacks, plus the Caleb Williams-led offense there to help out, things could have been a whole lot worse for the eighth-ranked Trojans.
“I think there’s always concerns,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said Tuesday. “There’s concerns when the scoreboard says 28 at the end of the game, and that’s no disrespect to the opponent.”
But Grinch and his players believe USC (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) is in a much better place than it was a year ago when the defense eventually buckled in the conference championship game with a spot in the College Football Playoff on the line.
“Percentage-wise, again, I would say the needle is pointing in a positive direction,” Grinch said. “But that doesn’t get it done in those moments.”
The most glaring example came on Sun Devils running back Cameron Skattebo’s 52-yard catch-and-run touchdown on fourth-and-7 shy of midfield halfway through the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Eric Gentry made a lunging attempt to stop the pass into the flat short of the sticks, only for Skattebo to step out of his tackle.
Safety Max Williams came in trying to limit the damage to a first down but didn’t wrap up, allowing Skattebo to bowl over him before covering the final 38 yards.
“The nice thing is the video shows all that stuff,” Grinch said. “The problem is you don’t get redos. So the big thing is those are very specific plays.”
Fortunately for USC, Williams led a three-play, 75-yard touchdown drive on the ensuing possession to restore a 14-point lead and put down any lingering threat from Arizona State.
Grinch sees the defense as greatly improved at tackling compared to a year ago, but he understands that a play like Skattebo’s score overshadows all the others where the stop was made.
“I think it’s a skill in football that you’re constantly working on. The message is to make it,” Grinch said.
“It’s always a one week evaluation. It’s a one play evaluation. Series, drive, half, and ultimately game. So it’s constantly working on that,” he added.
That skill will be tested at Colorado (3-1, 0-1) by a slippery spread passing offense that has punished poor tackling.
Gentry said the push for consistency remains an ongoing emphasis before USC hits the crux of its schedule.
“Just tackling,” Gentry said. “Tackling, tackling, tackling. Just wrapping up. Really, just like we have a series where we tackle good, then we have a series where it might be inconsistent, so just constant tackling.”
But much like last season, those issues could ruin all the defense’s good work in a crucial game. It might not matter that a reloaded front is tied for third in the FBS with 16 sacks, eight of which came against Arizona State, or the group as a whole is significantly better on third down and at stopping the run.
Defensive end Jamil Muhammad expects USC to take its close call to heart.
“I guess you can say the constant adversity that we faced in the Arizona State game, a lot of it was self-inflicted, just us not really being as focused as we should have been,” Muhammad said. “It definitely will serve a good purpose moving forward. Obviously, we learn from it, but I’m excited to see how we respond to it.”
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll
Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.