Dealing with the challenge of tackling continues to be a sensitive matter for USC’s No. 8 team, especially following their difficulties in their first away game of the season.
The 42-28 victory for Southern California over Arizona State last Saturday has reignited many of the worries regarding their defensive performance from the previous season.
The game showcased issues such as poor tackling and a lack of awareness in crucial moments, including yielding 125 yards in the fourth quarter. There was an overall sense that if it weren’t for timely turnovers and sacks, as well as the support of the Caleb Williams-led offense, the eighth-ranked Trojans could have faced a considerably worse outcome.
Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch, speaking on Tuesday, acknowledged the existence of these concerns, stating, “I think there are always concerns, especially when the final score reads 28, and this is not meant as a slight to the opponent.”
However, both Grinch and his players are optimistic that USC (4-0, 2-0 Pac-12) is in a significantly improved position compared to the previous year, when the defense ultimately faltered in the conference championship game with a potential spot in the College Football Playoff at stake.
“In terms of percentages, once again, I’d say there’s a positive trend,” Grinch remarked. “However, that doesn’t cut it when it matters most.”
A glaring example occurred when Cameron Skattebo, the Sun Devils’ running back, executed a 52-yard catch-and-run touchdown on a fourth-and-7 situation just shy of midfield in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Linebacker Eric Gentry made an attempt to halt the pass in the flat before the first down marker with a lunging effort, but Skattebo managed to elude his tackle. Safety Max Williams also tried to limit the damage and prevent a first down but failed to wrap up, allowing Skattebo to bulldoze his way for the remaining 38 yards.
“The positive aspect is that the video captures all these situations,” Grinch noted. “The challenge is, there are no do-overs. These are highly specific plays.”
Fortunately for USC, on the following possession, Williams orchestrated a three-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, reestablishing a 14-point lead and quelling any lingering threat from Arizona State.
Grinch perceives a significant improvement in the team’s tackling abilities compared to last year but acknowledges that a play like Skattebo’s touchdown can overshadow all the instances where successful stops were made.
“I believe that tackling in football is a skill that requires constant refinement,” Grinch stated. “The key message is to make it happen.”
“It’s an evaluation that occurs week by week, play by play, series by series, drive by drive, half by half, and ultimately, game by game. So we are constantly working on it,” he added.
This skill will face a test against Colorado (3-1, 0-1), which boasts a slippery spread passing offense known for exploiting poor tackling.
Gentry emphasized that consistency remains a top priority for the USC defense before they enter the critical phase of their schedule.
“Our focus is on tackling, tackling, and more tackling—making sure we wrap up. We might have a series where we tackle well, followed by one where it’s inconsistent, so it’s an ongoing focus,” Gentry explained.
However, similar to last season, these issues could undermine all the progress the defense has made in a crucial game. It might not matter that their revamped defensive line is tied for third in the FBS with 16 sacks, eight of which were recorded against Arizona State, or that the entire group is significantly improved on third downs and in stopping the run.
Defensive end Jamil Muhammad anticipates that USC will take their narrow victory over Arizona State to heart.
“You could say that the constant challenges we faced in the Arizona State game were largely self-inflicted, stemming from a lack of focus,” Muhammad reflected. “Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly serve as a valuable lesson moving forward. We’ll learn from it, and I’m eager to see how we respond.”