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Can USC fix its defense before it costs the Trojans a game?

LOS ANGELES — Even as USC had just finished off a resounding victory over Fresno State, defensive coordinator Alex Grinch appeared preoccupied.

Grinch’s brain always seems to be racing, as evidenced by the rapidity with which he speaks. But there was no basking after this win, even after his defense held a high-octane Fresno attack to 17 points.

Instead, there was a focus on the 421 yards allowed and the nine plays when the Bulldogs gained 15 yards or more.

“Those are unacceptable, they’re not good, they lead to points and it can put you behind the eight-ball which a lot of times it did tonight,” Grinch said in the immediate aftermath, eyes gazing above reporters’ heads. “Some of those plays, they feel like in the moment like it’s a trick play, like it’s something we haven’t seen … and I promise you that’s not the case.”

Through three games, USC’s defense has been the epitome of “bend but don’t break,” allowing 380.7 yards per game but only 19.7 points. The Trojans’ boast the nation’s best turnover margin and best red-zone defense of any team with 10 trips inside their own 20, which helps explain the contradictory stats.

But Grinch knows that is not sustainable, especially this coming weekend against an Oregon State team that averages 45.7 points per game and has produced a touchdown on 12 of its 14 red-zone trips.

There has not been a single culprit for USC when it comes to its defensive lapses. Instead, Grinch notes, it seems as though players have taken turns making mistakes.

But players have taken accountability, such as defensive lineman Tuli Tuipulotu fessing up to being out of his gap on one explosive Fresno State play last weekend.

“In the moment, sometimes you just get out of it,” Tuipulotu said.

In his attempt to diagnose the issue after practice on Wednesday, Grinch hypothesized that scars of seasons past are creeping up on the USC defense.

Grinch likes to preach that if each man does his 1/11th responsibility on every play, the Trojans will be successful. But there have been times in the recent past at USC that a player just doing his individual job was not good enough. That leads to people trying to cover three gaps instead of their own.

“The expectation is we’re a single-gap defense,” Grinch said. “Take care of your gap.”

Grinch said these are issues that arise at practice, too, not only on game day. He wants the defense to become a better practice unit, or else risk the coaching staff spending too much time on corrections rather than trying to improve the unit as a whole.

“Shouldn’t the mistakes have already been corrected? Yes, in almost every instance,” Grinch said. “We coach them so you either believe in coaching or you don’t. So we gotta do a better job of coaching the guys.”

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