Lincoln Riley has never been known for fielding a great defense but his 2023 USC defense is one of the worst units in the country. Riley finally moved on from his defensive coordinator late in the season but not much changed afterwards. Alex Grinch wasn’t a scapegoat, but the issues are much deeper than the guy leading the group. Riley has prioritized his offense and the talent on the defensive side of the ball has suffered. With most of the starters playing in this bowl game, we could see a group that wants to play well for their new coordinator.
Bear Alexander was one of the top defensive linemen in the portal last cycle and he has delivered for the Trojans. Alexander leads the team in quarterback pressures and he has 5.5 tackles for loss on the year. He has been one of the few consistent players up front though he hasn’t been able to help much with poor run defense.
The edges of the defense are where USC makes their plays. Jamil Muhammed and Solomon Byrd have been the only players on the defense that have made many havoc plays. Both have double-digit tackles for loss and they each have 6 sacks on the season. I was a little surprised by how much they stood out when I watched the games. USC’s defense has been gashed all year but these two guys are very athletic and talented.
It’s impossible to watch USC and not notice Eric Gentry. The 6-6/215 linebacker had a strong 2022 season but the numbers haven’t been as good this year. He still makes some big plays from time to time but he was a guy that was everywhere for this defense last year and it just hasn’t been that way this season. He teams up with Mason Cobb on the inside at linebacker and both players have been inconsistent, to say the least.
The USC secondary has been no better than the front seven this season. USC’s pass defense is one of the worst in the country. They have given up 31 touchdown passes and they allow teams to complete nearly 63% of their passes. I do think a lot of their issues are due to a lack of pressure and aggression up front but too many times this year, opposing receivers are just running wide open.
Domani Jackson won’t be playing in the game, so the Trojans will be without their best secondary player but they do have a few guys who can make plays. Jaylin Smith has looked good at times from what I’ve seen. The nickelback can play against the run as well as cover the slot. Max Williams is a veteran safety who can run with receivers in coverage and come downhill in run support.
The one player that did stand out to me was safety Calen Bullock. He consistently made big plays in pass coverage in important moments. I expect Jeff Brohm to be aggressive in this game and throw the ball down the field more than we’ve seen lately. Bullock is the guy to look out for when it comes to making plays down the field in coverage.