How Alex Grinch’s defense has ‘flipped the script’ for No. 7 USC

By Bryan Fischer
FOX Sports College Football Writer

When Lincoln Riley was first hired at USC, most thought it would only be a matter of time before one of college football’s bright young coaches could return Troy to prominence with his trademark high-flying offense.

As the Trojans glide past the halfway point of Riley’s first season, the program is indeed doing plenty well on that side of the ball and is back on the national radar as the Pac-12’s highest-ranked team at No. 7. In addition to scoring more than 40 points per game, they sport a Heisman Trophy candidate in quarterback Caleb Williams, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner in receiver Jordan Addison and the conference’s second-leading rusher in Travis Dye.

Yet USC, which faces No. 20 Utah in a key conference showdown Saturday in Salt Lake City (8 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app), is 6-0 for the first time since 2006 not because they’re capable of moving the ball seemingly at will. Rather, it’s because they’ve become far more accustomed to taking it away from their opponents at a historic pace.

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The Trojans lead the nation in turnover margin (+14) and remain the only team in double-digits on the positive side of the ledger. Notching 15 takeaways just midway through 2022 is particularly notable considering the cardinal and gold never recorded more than 19 in the four seasons prior. After shutting out Washington State in the second half last Saturday, they are also allowing the fewest points of anybody in the league.

“We talk about being an effort-based defense. Everybody likes to talk about talent and scheme — we like to talk about effort,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch told FOX Sports. “There is no such thing as great talent without effort. There’s no scheme that’s going to make up for effort. That’s the thing that we circle.”

Effort is something that was implanted in Grinch from an early age. Growing up the nephew of soon-to-be College Football Hall of Fame coach Gary Pinkel, the undersized safety made his way to Division III powerhouse Mount Union in the late 1990s to play for another Hall of Famer in Larry Kehres. Grinch won three national titles with the Purple Raiders around the turn of the century — alongside teammates-turned-coaches Matt Campbell (Iowa State) and Jason Candle (Toledo) — before joining his uncle as a graduate assistant during the early days of turning Missouri into a consistent winner in the Big 12.

Much of what Grinch now teaches on a weekly basis in Los Angeles has roots in lessons from those early days, focusing on things like attention to detail and discipline, in addition to the maximum effort he calls for on every snap, drill or film session. 

Following stops at New Hampshire, Wyoming, Missouri, Washington State and Ohio State prior to linking up with Riley at Oklahoma, Grinch has also come to live by the words “no excuses” when it comes to coaching defense. That’s a message that stems from not only spending two decades’ worth of Saturdays walking off the field as a factor in a win or a loss, but in going up against offensive minds like Ryan Day, Mike Leach and Chip Kelly every day in practice, too.

“You know that when you go against one of the best offenses in the country, you’re going to be challenged on a day-in and day-out basis. That’s an advantage for us,” says Grinch. “For a defensive guy, I’ve been surrounded with elite (offensive) coaches. I guess I don’t know what it would feel like to not have frustrating spring football and fall camps. We’ve always tried to flip the script.”

That’s something Grinch did in his first stint as defensive coordinator up in Pullman, taking WSU from the 117th scoring defense to 74th in his first season, shaving 11 full points per game off what the Cougars allowed.

A similar leap followed upon taking over in Norman, where the spotlight was even brighter on the coordinator after the Sooners’ struggles on that side of the ball. OU went from being in the bottom third in the country in most categories and allowing at least 5.8 yards per play in the three seasons pre-Grinch, to a top-30 unit that allowed 5.19 yards per play just two years later.

In addition, Grinch coached five top-100 draft picks on the defensive side of the ball during his time at Oklahoma. His boss, Riley, managed just three in the same time frame.

Now the focus is fully on the Trojans, who have taken their biggest preseason concern and turned it into a full-on strength that has helped them through tough spots in each of their first four Pac-12 games. The four turnovers they forced against Stanford led to 17 points, and they carried the offense on an off-night in Corvallis by grabbing four interceptions, including one on a game-winning stand on the final drive against Oregon State.

USC also ranks sixth nationally in red-zone defense, leads the country in sacks at four per game and managed to pressure or hurry Washington State quarterback Cam Ward on more than a third of his dropbacks last week at the Coliseum. Defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu has been particularly disruptive, adding three sacks on Saturday to lift his FBS-leading total to seven.

“The front is the obvious thing, they’ve bought into the notion that if we’re not in the backfield, we’re not playing the way we want to play,” Riley said after practice on Tuesday. “We’ve been able to get production from multiple people. Tuli has obviously been a force for us, but it hasn’t been just Tuli.”

Coaches rave about Tuipulotu’s ability to get upfield regardless of what the play call is. He’s been able to line up inside in addition to kicking outside off the edge to create optimal matchups to get to the quarterback, freeing up others such as Nick Figueroa and Tyrone Taleni to get into the backfield. The ability to move the pocket with just a handful of defensive linemen allows for more flexibility on the back end, something that’s critical given the number of different offensive styles the team faces in the Pac-12.

A little additional pressure here or an unexpected hand on the quarterback in turn has caused opponents to speed things up or throw off their timing — playing right into a lengthy defense’s hands that always seem to be around the football when it’s in the air.

“Football has made us adapt defensively, whether it’s through the pass game, the RPO, the quarterback run or tempo,” Grinch said. “You’re just in constant conflict. We’ve got to flip the story and make sure our guys have a confidence level that we get them some conflicts as well.”

The Trojans have been able to do that in part by simply upgrading the players involved. While offensive players like Williams and Addison garnered much of the offseason attention, the defense went through a similar overhaul with a batch of fresh faces brought in through the transfer portal. 

Upon going over the roster on the initial plane ride to Los Angeles and eventually settling into the new offices to watch film of a team that went 4-8 last year, Grinch agreed with Riley that there was not one position group that USC would not be in the market to upgrade with transfers. Some of that came down to upping the talent level among the front-line starters, but also when it came to depth at certain positions. 

That’s shown up in who has suited up for the cardinal and gold this season. In addition to Tuipulotu, nose tackle Stanley Ta’ufo’ou and safety Calen Bullock form the team’s lone returning starters from last year.

While that would normally make for plenty of issues learning a new system for a rash of players settling into a new program, Grinch has tried to keep things as simple as possible so that his players can not only play at full speed, but play with that maximum effort as well.

Eric Gentry has been one to benefit from the approach. The former Arizona State freshman All-American picked things up so quickly that he’s led the Trojans in tackles five times already this season. The 6-foot-6 linebacker has been challenged by the coaches to keep pushing himself even further, and they think he’s capable of being one of college football’s elite defenders.

Gentry still needs to fill out a bit if he’s going to get to that point, but until then, he can keep making plays with his 7-foot-1 wingspan that has created havoc in the middle of passing lanes so far this season.  

If a ball does end up making it through, quarterbacks will also have to be mindful of what awaits on the back end. Colorado transfer Mekhi Blackmon quickly established himself as a starter at corner, while Latrell McCutchin has added to the depth after arriving with Grinch from Oklahoma. Youngsters Jaylin Smith and Ceyair Wright have injected additional speed to the lineup, while Max Williams has been stellar in his return from a knee injury in 2021. All have allowed Bullock to roam freely against the pass while also providing a force in the middle for run support.

“The secondary’s always athletic at S.C. You can look at any year for the last 50 years, and they’ve got great athletes back there,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said this week ahead of their meeting Saturday. “Between the secondary and the way the front’s playing, that’s really the reason they’ve been having success.”

So much so that Grinch’s name continues to come up on the coaching carousel as a potential head coach, not surprising given his résumé and obvious on-field results in making the Trojans defense a group to be feared once again in conference play. It’s not the first time the 42-year-old has been connected with various openings, and it surely won’t be the last.

The conventional wisdom may still hold true that it’s Riley’s offense that will be the root cause of USC’s return to being the flagship program on the West Coast, but as his time at Oklahoma consistently proved, you still need to play a little defense to win championships. 

Thanks to his opposite number on the other side of the ball and a remarkable influx of talent being put in the right position, that may well be the case now for the Trojans as they aim their sights beyond just a Pac-12 title and eye an appearance in the College Football Playoff with each successive, defensive-fueled victory. 

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Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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