USC fires defensive coordinator Alex Grinch after Trojans allow 52 points in loss to Washington

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USC has fired defensive coordinator Alex Grinch after less than two years with the program. The Trojans fell 52-42 to Washington on Saturday with Grinch’s defense allowing 44.2 points per game over the last six contests.

Defensive line coach Shaun Nua and inside linebackers coach Brian Odom will serve as interim defensive coordinators for the rest of the season. Defensive analyst Taylor Mays, a former USC All-American defensive back, has been promoted to an on-field role as safeties coach to replace Grinch. 

Grinch joined coach Lincoln Riley in moving from Oklahoma to USC after the 2021 season despite major criticism of his Sooners defenses. The unit has been scrutinized even further in Los Angeles last season after USC gave up a combined 136 points in three losses during an 11-3 campaign that ended with a loss in the Cotton Bowl. 

However, the unit tanked during a disappointing 2023 campaign. Despite adding nine transfers on defense, the defense has regressed, falling 14 spots to No. 119 in total defense and nearly 30 spots to No. 121 in scoring defense. His defense has allowed 265 points over the last six games and held only one team (Utah) to fewer than 40 points. The Trojans went 3-3 over the stretch resulting in first three-loss regular season of Riley’s career. Life does not get easier for the Trojans next week when they visit Oregon.

Grinch comes from the highly-regarded Mount Union and Gary Pinkel coaching trees, and he got his first chance to call plays under Mike Leach at Washington State where he took the Cougars from 84th to 16th in total defense over just two years to become one of the hottest young coordinator candidates in the nation. Grinch led Oklahoma to a top-30 defense in 2020, but the Sooners fell to 76th in 2021 before collapsing at USC. 

Wasting a Heisman Trophy run

Riley has repeatedly defended Grinch’s performance during his tenure, despite lackluster results. On Oct. 10, Riley called USC’s defense a “much-improved unit” and blamed the media for all the attention on it. However, the Trojans have ranked among the worst defensive units in the country — bottom 15 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and plays of 10+ yards allowed, per the Los Angeles Times

Perhaps most troubling, USC’s defenses have wasted another Heisman Trophy caliber season from quarterback Caleb Williams. The junior is averaging a higher completion percentage and more yards per attempt while being on pace to score more touchdowns than he did in his Heisman campaign a year ago. This despite losing several key offensive linemen. USC has averaged 31.3 points per game in losses. 

While Riley has a talent for finding elite QBs, Williams is arguably the best of his career so far. There’s no guarantee that future signal callers will be able to play at a similarly high level. Failing to reach the College Football Playoff with such a prodigious talent is a black mark on Riley’s record. 

Career-defining hire to come

After losing 52-42 against Washington, Riley told reporters that now wasn’t the time to evaluate big-picture coordinator decisions. However, whether it was Riley or pressure from above, Grinch was ultimately fired before noon local time Sunday morning. 

In many ways, the firing mirrors Riley’s second year at Oklahoma. Embattled defensive coordinator Mike Stoops remained on his staff after Bob Stoops retired, and the Sooners regressed. Ultimately, Mike Stoops was also fired midseason, clearing the way for Grinch to join OU after one year as a co-defensive coordinator next to Greg Schiano at Ohio State. The unit improved, but the program fell back, ultimately snapping a streak of CFP appearances in 2020 before Riley left for USC in 2021. 

Riley ranks among the top offensive minds in football at any level, but his high-powered units put his own defenses in precarious positions. It’s unclear at this point how much Riley’s program and practice structure is to blame for his porous defenses, but he will have to find a coordinator who can work around the complications and find ways to compete at the highest level.

With a move to the Big Ten on the horizon, Riley’s teams can no longer get away with winning through finesse alone.  USC’s next defensive coordinator will open their career with a nonconference matchup against Brian Kelly’s LSU. The Big Ten opener involves a road trip for a heavyweight battle against Michigan

 

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