USC coach Lincoln Riley says Trojans' defense is 'much-improved' from 2022

No. 10 USC is undefeated so far this season but has given up 41 points in each of its last two games

USC coach Lincoln Riley believes “there’s a lot of good things happening” on his team’s defense.

The 6-0 Trojans have given up 41 points in each of their last two victories and have allowed at least 28 points in four of their six wins. A season ago, USC gave up at least 45 points in three of its last four games as the Trojans ended the season on a two-game losing streak.

The point totals allowed so far don’t make it seem like No. 10 USC’s defense has gotten much better over the offseason. However, Riley believes that unit has improved, and pointed out after practice Tuesday that USC would have allowed just 28 points in its 43-41 triple-overtime win over Arizona in Week 6 had the Trojans been able to execute a short game-winning field goal as time expired for a 31-28 walk-off victory.

“The reality is in regulation — look here’s the deal — if we make that field goal and win it in regulation we’re all talking about how the defense gave up only 11 points the rest of the day and they started the entire run that got us back on the same page,” Riley said.

“But it’s one field goal that we don’t make that the defense has no control over and all everybody just wants to do is look at the final score … and it just doesn’t tell the entire story. [QB Caleb Williams] was exactly right, it’s what we’ve been trying to say. We’re not hiding from the areas that we’ve got to continue to make improvement, and there certainly are some. But this is a much-improved unit. There is no question about it. This is a unit I think when you talk about the top-end potential, has a chance to really grow and get better fast given some of the youth, some of the new people, some of the quality depth that we have, some of the injuries that we’ve had that have prevented guys from being able to continually get snaps.”

USC was down 17-0 to Arizona in the first half before coming back to take the lead in the third quarter. After the game went to overtime, Arizona easily scored on its first two possessions before getting stopped on its third overtime two-point conversion attempt.

Statistically, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch's unit is better than it was a season ago, even if it’s still obvious that defense could still stand to improve its tackling. USC is giving up 2.2 fewer points per game than it did in 2022 and opponents are averaging 5.7 yards a play compared to 6.5 yards a play in 2022.

However, it’s worth noting that the USC defense got worse as the season went on in 2022. As it was buoyed by a high turnover rate in the first half of the season, USC didn’t give up more than 28 points and held four of its first six opponents to 17 or fewer points. As the schedule got deeper into conference play, the defense took steps backward — especially against Utah. The Utes mauled USC’s defense and scored a combined 90 points in both of its wins.

The Utes are on deck after the Trojans’ Saturday game against Notre Dame in what’s a pivotal stretch for the USC defense. Notre Dame’s offense has been predicated on a power run game so far this season and opponents are averaging over four yards a carry against USC in 2023. That improvement Riley referenced needs to be on display very soon for the Trojans to stay undefeated.