Class is in session for USC. Coaches and players are in the midst of a crash course in teaching the game of football. The Trojans beat San Jose State on Saturday, 56-28, in a game which should have fans moderately concerned.
We say “moderately” because it’s too early to panic. First games will be rough and sloppy. We need to see if bad trends persist before getting really worried. However, after a full offseason, and given the increased depth USC established on defense in the transfer portal, even the most pessimistic Trojan fans had to be disapproving of this performance.
Fans grumbling about this USC defensive effort are not overreacting. Let’s put it that way. Coaches were clear in saying they had more talent, they had more depth, they had more bodies, they had more pieces. The coaches did not back away from saying they had something better on defense this season.
Need proof and documentation? Here’s one link.
The message could not have been clearer this season: No excuses. Get it done on Saturday.
The USC defense did not “get it done” on its first Saturday of the season.
With that, we’ll lead you into our first USC report card of the 2023 campaign:
ALEX GRINCH: D-MINUS
Why not an “F” for Grinch? Here’s why: This game was in many ways treated like a preseason game. Coaches played a lot of players, which did not lend itself to maximum continuity. Coaches wanted to evaluate a lot of guys on film and give them information for the coming weeks of practice.
This was and is a good decision. Coaches should play more players in games they will easily win. USC doesn’t have to have defined starters for at least a few more weeks. The Trojans can probably rotate a lot of bodies and not lose games until mid-October. There will be a lot more to say about this, but the need to look at a lot of players is why Grinch didn’t fully flunk.
He still gets a D-minus, however, for blitzing on 3rd and 22 and in late-half situations when putting eight guys back in coverage and forcing a short dump-off pass is obviously the better move. Keep it simple, Alex. Get off the field and don’t get greedy with this defense. Just get the stop and give the ball back to Caleb Williams. Don’t overthink it.
In the first half of the 2022 season, we didn’t see coverage busts. We saw a few against San Jose State. Domani Jackson had a very, very rough night. He should improve, but it was jarring to see him play this poorly. Calen Bullock got shaken up in this game, but even then, downfield pass defense ought to be better … and it will need to be against the Pac-12 gunslingers USC faces later in the year.
Tackett Curtis made some good plays at linebacker, as did Eric Gentry. The linebackers weren’t overpowered in the run game, which is a step forward, but they were part of a leaky pass defense. No one should get too much credit, though, on a night when the USC defense didn’t make the grade as a collective whole.
DEFENSIVE LINE: C-MINUS
Solomon Byrd made a big play, and the run defense did not spring a lot of leaks the way it did last year. That was better. However, San Jose State quarterback Chevan Cordeiro ran for 28 yards on 3rd and 22. Containing scrambles was a mess for this defensive line. The pass rush made a few plays but was hardly dominant against an inferior opponent. Alex Grinch and Shaun Nua have a lot of work to do.
BEAR ALEXANDER: D
Good thing they got Bear Alexander!
(USC’s defense is pathetic again) pic.twitter.com/08sRDkNYxP
— UGA Randy (@UgaRandy) August 27, 2023
The talent might be there, but the coaching didn’t bring out the best in that talent. There’s a lot to evaluate with Bear Alexander, and USC fans learned his impact will likely emerge gradually instead of being instant.
ELIJAH HUGHES: B-MINUS
USC true freshmen Elijah Hughes (56) and Tackett Curtis (25) make an impact on back-to-back plays pic.twitter.com/wRFvz4JdlL
— Ian Valentino (@NFLDraftStudy) August 27, 2023
Hughes was a real bright spot as a freshman. USC will need contributions from freshmen on defense in order to develop the defensive depth this season requires. Hughes would certainly rate as a freshman who provided more than nothing, which makes him one of the few Trojans who graded out better than most expected on defense.
LINCOLN RILEY: INCOMPLETE
We won’t know for a few more weeks how well Riley coached in this game. Hence, the incomplete grade.
Riley’s decision to play a lot of players was great. That’s the right approach in a season with a soft early schedule. Wanting to get more evaluations on more players is unquestionably the right decision.
However: This was all very sloppy and inconsistent, and one would expect more precision than what we actually saw versus San Jose State.
Furthermore, the bad performance by the defense reminds us that Lincoln Riley chose to double down with Alex Grinch. Riley isn’t the defensive coordinator, but he bears responsibility as the head coach for how the team performs, including the defense. That drags down his grade to a C.
If judged purely on offense, he gets a B: nothing special, nothing terrible.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B-PLUS
A kickoff went out of bounds. Several mistakes were made. This was a C-minus/D-plus performance on several levels … but then Zachariah Branch happened. A 96-yard kick return is an added weapon USC can really use this year. Branch might validate Lincoln Riley’s decision to not have a special teams coordinator. He will compensate for a lot of weaknesses.
ZACHARIAH BRANCH: A-PLUS
CALEB WILLIAMS: A-MINUS
He didn’t get an elite level of offensive line play in front of him, but Caleb Williams still made huge plays without turning the ball over. As long as he does that, USC will be in fundamentally good shape on offense.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B-MINUS
It was a slow start for Dorian Singer. We need to see something much better from him in the coming weeks. Mario Williams needs to be better.
However, Tahj Washington stepped up and Zachariah Branch was a revelation. USC’s receiver depth is considerable, and if the younger guys evolve quickly, the struggles of the veterans — while still noteworthy and concerning — will matter less.
Again: Zachariah Branch compensates for others’ weaknesses. USC’s receiver grade would have been a C-minus without Branch.
RUNNING BACKS: C
The USC running game did not dominate this game. This was mostly a Caleb Williams game. It didn’t matter against San Jose State, but it will matter later in the season.
OFFENSIVE LINE: C-MINUS
No one would say the offensive line performed particularly well. However, USC used at least four if not more line rotations and played a bunch of players, including Mason Murphy and Elijah Paige. Giving guys reps mattered more than creating instant cohesion on the line. However, in the coming weeks, Josh Henson will need to create that continuity and settle on his starters. He doesn’t have to get a final answer this week against Nevada, but by late September, we do need to see much more clarity.
FULL TEAM GRADE: C
Offense: fine. Defense: not fine. Special teams: flawed but now with Zachariah Branch. In other words, average. Wait and see how this all develops.
It’s the first game. Let’s see if the coaches use film to elicit improvements in their players in the coming weeks.