After nearly two seasons of struggles, USC fires defensive coordinator Alex Grinch

LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 4, 2023: USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch.

After two seasons of disappointment and amid soaring frustration with its struggling defense, USC fired Alex Grinch as its defensive coordinator Sunday.

The move came after more than a year of festering furor among USC fans and less than 24 hours after an excruciating nadir for Grinch’s defense, which gave up 571 yards in a 52-42 loss to Washington on Saturday night. The defeat all but erased any remaining hope for a Pac-12 Conference title for the Trojans..

USC defensive line coach Shaun Nua and inside linebackers coach Brian Odom will serve as interim co-defensive coordinators for the final two games of the season, as well as the bowl game, while defensive analyst Taylor Mays has been elevated to an on-field assistant role coaching safeties.

Read more: Plaschke: Fired too late, Alex Grinch’s last stand ends USC’s season

It’s unclear if anyone would be capable of undoing this season’s steep downward spiral on the defensive side. By almost every available metric, USC has one of the worst defenses in college football. Through 10 games, the unit has given up 34.5 points per game, on pace for the worst mark in school history by a wide margin. It ranks in the bottom 15 in the nation not only in points allowed, but also yards allowed (436 yards per game), rush defense (186.5 yards per game), plays of 10-plus yards (150) and plays of 20-plus yards allowed (62).

And still, those statistics don’t fully capture the futility of the defense, which had been in a tailspin since late last season. The final month of the 2022 season saw the Trojans give up nearly 2,000 yards before hitting rock bottom in a crushing Cotton Bowl loss to Tulane. USC gave up over 10 yards per play in the game, and fans responded in kind, calling for Grinch’s job.

Coach Lincoln Riley could have made a move then. Nonetheless, he stuck by his coordinator.

That decision, last January, would come to define this season. Asked Saturday night if he regretted his handling of the situation, Riley said it wasn’t the time to answer any “big-picture questions."

“I know as a head coach, it all falls under my responsibility ultimately and I don’t shy away from that and I never have,” Riley said. “But there are times and places for those discussions and those will happen at the appropriate times.”

That time apparently came Sunday, not long after USC had fallen out of the Associated Press top 25 for the first time in Riley’s tenure.

USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch walks back to the locker room at the Coliseum.
USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch walks back to the locker room before Saturday's 52-42 loss to Washington at the Coliseum. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Riley once before made a similar decision, at a similar juncture of the season, to fire his defensive coordinator. Mike Stoops had worn out his welcome with Oklahoma fans by that point, after he oversaw a steep decline in the Sooners' defense, from 39th in total defense in 2015 to 96th in 2018.

In Stoops’ place, Riley hired Grinch, whom he knew through Mike Leach, his mentor in coaching. The two coaches had been together since 2019, when Riley lured Grinch away from Ohio State. They spent three seasons together at Oklahoma, leading the Sooners twice to the College Football Playoff. Later, at USC, Riley often used their tenure in Oklahoma as evidence of Grinch’s ability to rebuild a defense.

Oklahoma might quibble with that version of events, as its defense struggled in similar fashion to USC by the end of that tenure. But when Riley left for USC two Novembers ago, Grinch was on the plane with him out of Oklahoma.

Read more: USC can't keep up with Washington in scoring spree, crippling its Pac-12 title hopes

“I've been through it enough with that guy to know, don't bet against him,” Riley said of Grinch last January. “I know what he's made of. I just do, and I know it's getting ready to happen defensively, and so I just have a confidence and a belief there in not just Alex, but the other guys in the room.”

Riley’s loyalty to his coordinator and friend would come under serious scrutiny, as both coaches said they were confident USC’s defense would shake off its disappointing finish in 2022. Riley said he planned to take more of an active role on defense, while Grinch took accountability for the unit’s woes. The two coaches rebuilt their defensive front through the transfer portal, adding an All-Big 12 linebacker and multiple former five-star prospects. All signs pointed toward some measure of progress.

Instead, USC’s defense took two steps back. After a smooth first month, the Trojans returned from a week off and were never quite the same on defense. The Trojans struggled to tackle at Arizona State and nearly allowed a fourth-quarter comeback at Colorado. In each of the six games after USC’s week off, the defense gave up at least 34 points.

Riley continued to publicly express his confidence in Grinch until the end. But the Trojans' embattled coordinator seemed to understand how dire his situation was Tuesday.

“Couldn’t be more disappointed in myself,” Grinch said. “You’re constantly looking at calls. Obviously, you’re looking at personnel. We gotta get it fixed, and we gotta get it fixed fast.”

Read more: USC vs. Washington takeaways: What's next for Caleb Williams after emotional loss?

The fix didn’t come fast enough. By Saturday, as Washington drove down the field with ease, USC’s embattled defense had clearly hit rock bottom. Defenders were out of position. Gaps were left unattended. Fans bemoaned a second lost season with Caleb Williams, the Trojans' generational quarterback.

Afterward, in the postgame news conference, even USC players struggled to reason with the breakdowns. Asked what Grinch told his defense in the aftermath, linebacker Mason Cobb shrugged.

“There isn’t much to say,” Cobb said.

The final word finally came Sunday, two games before the end of USC’s regular season — and perhaps a full year too late.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.