Musings from Arledge: A USC program in shambles

by:Chris Arledge11/19/23

A bad loss by a bad team to cap a bad season. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I suppose it was a fitting end to one of the more disappointing USC seasons I can remember.

This USC program is in shambles. The preseason number six team is now probably the seventh-best team in the Pac-12. And this is a rare year when not a single position group performed to the level of its ability. There were solid individual performances—Tahj Washington and Solomon Byrd, for example—but there was no position group that excelled. Every position is a position where USC could use a talent upgrade. Every position coach is a coach who needs to be scrutinized closely during the offseason. This is not an offseason for tinkering; it’s a time to make a massive overhaul. After yesterday, I think Lincoln Riley understands that.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I want to spend a few minutes talking about why I think the season fell apart, and then talk about what USC can do to get back on track.

Let’s start with the offense, which put up good numbers overall but clearly was not what USC fans (or really anybody) expected from this group.

With this year’s disappointment, some USC fans are arguing that the problem is the offensive system; you hear statements like “nobody has ever won a title running the Air Raid.” First, as a purely factual matter, that’s not true. Bob Stoops won a national title with a Leach disciple at offensive coordinator running the Air Raid. Second, when just about everybody in the country is running some version of the spread offense, it’s hard to say there’s anything inconsistent between a national title run and the formations and plays USC is running. What Alabama and Georgia do on a regular basis USC can also do—using the same type of personnel and the same sets. And Lincoln Riley doesn’t run a pure Air Raid. This isn’t Mike Leach’s offense. Riley has traditionally run the football very well. In five years at Oklahoma, his teams averaged about 215 yards per game on the ground, and twice his teams were in the top 15 in the nation for rushing yards. That’s not the Pirate’s scheme.

USC’s fundamental problem on offense this year was very subpar offensive line play. Against any halfway decent front seven, the offensive line got shoved into a locker and had its lunch money stolen. UCLA was often able to rush only three and still overwhelm USC’s offensive line. If you’re dropping eight and you’re still all over the quarterback, your defense is going to have a good day.

I do not blame Lincoln Riley for the poor offensive line play. I’m surprised some of the transfers didn’t play better. But Clay Helton’s offensive line recruiting was abysmal; he left Riley a decent starting unit last year, but absolutely no depth in the younger classes. I think you can build wide receiver groups through the transfer portal. And secondaries. You can get quarterbacks and running backs in the portal. I don’t think you can build an offensive line through the portal. 

USC is doing what they need to do for the most part. They recruited pretty well on the offensive line last year, and the Trojans have a solid group of commits this year. The challenge is landing elite offensive line prospects from Texas and the South, which is where so many of the top big guys are. And I agree that the it’s hard to pull guys from across the country when so many schools closer to home are far more aggressive in throwing money at star linemen, especially left tackles. USC will need to up its NIL game if it wants to compete with the elite programs in the country.

But we also shouldn’t overstate the challenge. Oregon State, Washington, and Utah have all put together solid offensive lines on the west coast, without spending a fortune in NIL deals, and without having the nationwide recruiting pull that USC has. USC can build a solid offensive line. I think they will. I just think it takes time to dig out of the hole that Clay Helton left. Solve the O line, and USC solves its offensive problems.

Before moving on from the offense, it’s worth a minute to discuss Caleb Williams. Williams is the most talented college quarterback I’ve ever seen. He was still great this year for the most part. But, clearly, something was wrong. He frequently passed up opportunities to run when he should have. And, for whatever reason, he just would not operate within the offense.  He has had great success holding the ball and trying to make things happen. Sometimes he didn’t have a choice; receivers just weren’t open. But sometimes they were. And they were often “NFL open”—meaning, they had the type of separation you expect to get at the NFL level. NFL quarterbacks get rid of the ball on time and put it in small windows. Caleb Williams didn’t do that this year very often. 

I appreciate all that Williams did at USC. I’ve never seen a better human highlight reel. And I hope he lands in the right situation next year, with a good coach who can develop him into the player he’s capable of being. And he’s capable of being a perennial Pro Bowler. 

Still, Lincoln Riley will survive without Caleb Williams. Riley will find good quarterback play. He’s done it many times over the years, and he’ll do it again. I’m not worried about that. Truth is, over the long term, I am not worried about the offense at all. 

I am, however, terrified about the defense. I think USC will hire a highly qualified defensive coordinator, and that means USC has a chance to turn things around. But with Riley’s now lengthy track record of playing bad defense, and with his absolutely inexcusable mistake of somehow thinking Alex Grinch was the answer at defensive coordinator—after five years of watching Grinch stumble all over himself!—it’s hard to feel comfortable that Lincoln Riley can get this right. Relying on Grinch was a giant miss and therefore a giant red flag for the future. And if Riley doesn’t find a way to turn things around defensively, USC has no chance of rejoining the ranks of the elite. USC can have seasons with double digit wins even with poor defenses. Lincoln Riley has done that many times. But USC isn’t winning any titles without playing very good defense. And to date, Lincoln Riley has done nothing to show that he knows how to deliver that.

This year’s defense was a disaster at every level. It did nothing well. It didn’t stop the run. It didn’t rush the passer. It didn’t cover anybody. It didn’t tackle anybody. It couldn’t get lined up half the time. It gave up more points than any USC defense in history. It wasn’t the Titanic of defenses; I think the first few days on the Titanic were pretty nice. But it may have been the Hindenburg of defenses.

Part of that is coaching—a large part, I believe. There’s no reason to go through Alex Grinch’s schemes yet again. I’ve done that enough this year. But it’s clear he had to go.

I think there are some position coaches that also need to go. I think there might be a couple of good ones. But it’s hard to watch any of this year’s position groups and feel good about the job the position coaches did. Bear Alexander is a problem for offenses, and Solomon Byrd played well. The front four didn’t exactly remind anybody of the 2004 USC defense, but I think they played reasonable well for the most part. 

The linebackers were a disaster, which is disappointing in light of how much Lincoln Riley promoted that group in the offseason. Personnel decisions didn’t help. That the linebackers were too timid to get downhill and attack the run also didn’t help. That USC was trying to train a talented but not-ready freshman for most of the season was also a factor. But USC needs a lot more from that group. That was rough.

And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen worse secondary play. That group couldn’t cover anybody, nor could it tackle anybody. They seemed perpetually confused. Yes, Grinch put them in difficult positions all the time. But they couldn’t do the simple things either. It was unbelievably disappointing to watch on a weekly basis. 

And let’s be honest about something else. If your base defense is going to be nickel, which isn’t unusual in football these days, then you’re counting on your nickel to be solid in run support. USC got terrible run support from its nickel. I can’t count the number of plays this year when USC’s nickel had a critical run support responsibility, was unblocked, and still failed to get in on a play run right at him. It happened over and over again, week after week. And opponents exploited it ruthlessly. They knew they could run wide at USC’s nickel, because they knew that position would not make a play in the running game. It was really that simple. 

USC needs a massive talent upgrade defensively. USC needs a massive talent upgrade in its defensive coaching staff. Lincoln Riley knew that this season hinged on whether his defense could show massive improvement. He failed miserably. The defense got even worse.

A great defensive coordinator hire will help, obviously. USC needs something to sell to defensive recruits, and the right hire could give them a story. Kids want to be developed, and they want to have success. Nobody watches USC give up 40 every week and thinks, “I’d like to be part of that.”

USC also needs to overhaul its special teams. Riley believes position coaches can coach the special teams units. Maybe. Other teams have had success with that philosophy. But USC’s kicking units were bad this year. Has any team wasted a talented return man more than USC wasted Zachariah Branch? I get that the kid made some really bad decisions this year on kickoff returns. But the inability to block for him—ever—was incredibly disappointing. This is a guy that every opponent had to fear, but USC’s kickoff unit was so bad, many teams decided to kick right to him, knowing that USC wouldn’t block for him, he might run laterally and get tackled inside the 15, and there was about a 50% chance that USC would also get a holding or blocking in the back penalty so they could start at the seven. 

The kickoff unit was bad. The kicker was unreliable. The punt team, at least, was solid. But special teams were far from a strength this year, and if Lincoln Riley is going to insist on not having a special teams coach, he needs to make sure that he’s getting decent work from his assistants on their units. 

All of the problems we talked about above are fixable. I think Lincoln Riley can fix them if he makes the right hires this offseason, and I think it’s pretty clear that Riley knows he must make major changes.

But nothing changes unless USC makes changes in two fundamental areas. First, USC must do better in the NIL space. That won’t be easy. There are other programs that have far better financial support, including, obviously, Oregon. And we can complain about USC’s alums—I do—but it’s also the case that USC has spent years treating its donors like garbage, has spent years forcing its fans to tolerate inexcusable personnel decisions (hiring Sark, retaining Clay for so long, bringing back Grinch), and has generally eroded any trust with the people from whom it needs to raise money. That’s not an easy problem to solve, and Lincoln Riley’s faceplant this year won’t help. Good coaching and talent evaluation will allow USC to make great strides even without a great NIL program—again, Utah and Oregon State manage to play pretty good defense much of the time—but USC will never compete with the big dogs without offering market compensation.

And the final piece is the most elusive. USC has been a soft program since Pete Carroll left. They’ve had a few okay seasons since then, and they’ve obviously had some great players since then. But the culture of this program has been broken for a very long time. And now, two years into Lincoln Riley’s tenure, it hasn’t improved. This year’s team looked like a Clay Helton team. I know Lincoln Riley’s teams can score points. USC will continue to score points. But can USC toughen up? Can these guys outmuscle opponents? They obviously haven’t been able for many years. Some of that is size and talent. But not all of it. Football is about attitude as much as anything. Matt Grootegoed was built like the average concession worker; but that guy played with attitude. He was smart and tough and wanted it more. 

Every football coach wants a tough, disciplined football team. But most don’t know how to build one. It may be the most elusive skill set for a college football coach. All the greats have it. Pete Carroll’s teams were killers. They were fast and talented, yes, but they also couldn’t wait to punch the opponent in the mouth. If I had to point to one giant question mark in Lincoln Riley’s skill set—one huge question mark in USC’s future under his leadership—it is this: can USC develop the toughness and physicality that characterized all of the great USC teams and gave the program that success that it had over many coaches and many years? Right now, I’m not sure they can. And if they don’t, USC football not only won’t be an elite program; it won’t even be a program that I can enjoy watching. I can tolerate a great many defects in a football team. But soft football is unacceptable. There’s nothing worse. It’s the thing Lincoln Riley most needs to fix, and it’s the thing I’m least optimistic he can. I hope I’m wrong about this.

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