Inconsistent defense prefaces USC’s search for new defensive coordinator – Orange County Register

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LOS ANGELES — The walls surrounding USC’s postgame press conference room were reverberating from the bass from UCLA’s locker room on Saturday evening.

The Bruins were undoubtedly Dougie-ing as Trojans head coach Lincoln Riley talked about not being able to capitalize on opportunities in the 38-20 loss that had just occurred. The defense, especially, had momentary highlights that were overshadowed by an overall inconsistent performance.

“There’s so much talent on the offensive and defensive side,” safety Jaylin Smith said. “It’s a game of execution. And the team that executes better, that’s the outcome you’re going to get.”

Smith had reached to wrap outstretched arms around UCLA quarterback Ethan Garbers for what was nearly a sack, but Garbers slung a last-second toss to running back TJ Harden for a 7-yard touchdown with just over 10 minutes left in the third quarter.

It was Harden’s first touchdown reception of his career. He also set a new career-high for single-game rushing yards with 142.

The Trojans defense had another missed opportunity earlier on that drive when Mason Cobb’s fumble recovery was called back after official review. The Bruins went into the final quarter with a 31-13 advantage.

UCLA scored two touchdowns in the first quarter — a team-high for points in the opening quarter this season — before being held scoreless in the second frame, then added another 17 points in the third quarter.

Saturday’s performance prefaces USC’s search for a new defensive coordinator, one of many changes that could happen this offseason.

“We’ve already made one pretty big change,” Riley said. “We knew this was gonna be a climb. We knew that’s what we signed up for. Everybody wants the clean, smooth road to the top and that’s for the movies. The road to the top is jagged.”

Inside linebackers coach Brian Odom and defensive line coach Shaun Nua have been serving as co-defensive coordinators since Alex Grinch was fired on Nov. 5 following a 52-42 loss to Washington.

Nua is on the sideline during games and Odom is on the box, but both are able to communicate plays and what they’re seeing to the players well, according to rush end Jamil Muhammad.

“It was the same communication we had in the past,” Muhammad said. “That wasn’t an issue for us.”

The Bruins converted on 13 out of 20 third downs, and scored three touchdowns on third down, including Harden’s seven-yard touchdown catch.

USC gave up 222 rushing yards against a respectable Bruins ground attack that has a bruising running back in Carson Steele and another with great vision in Harden. The Trojans did manage to sack Garbers three times and logged six tackles for loss. Senior corner Christian Roland-Wallace had one of the more impressive stat lines of the evening with six total tackles, two pass breakups and half a tackle for loss.

The Trojans were only able to muster three yards on the ground for themselves.

“The run defense and our inability to run the ball were a big part of it,” Riley said. “Because then those good pass rushers were able to start the teeing off, and obviously that’s not a situation you want to be in.”

The final Pac-12 season is punctuated with a three-game losing streak, the first time they’ve lost three straight since 2021. It’s part of what Riley called the most difficult nine games that any team has faced.

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