How The Grinch Stole The Season

Yeh, I know we’ve just gotten past Halloween, and Thanksgiving is still a coupla weeks off, but you’re probably noticing Christmas decorations are already popping up.  The Hallmark Channel is already in nonstop holiday movie mode, and somehow the first day of standard time seems to be the unofficial starting gun for street lights and decorations to be unveiled.  Like it or not, holiday spirit already seems to be taking over.

Though if you’re a fan of the USC football program, your holiday season isn’t quite as jolly as you may have hoped when the season started.  Although they were returning Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams and surrounding him with an impressive array of returning players and recruits that celebrated new coach Lincoln Riley was able to bring to SoCal, and despite winning their first seven games in a row this season, the warning signs were omnipresent.  Despite having such talent on offense, its defense, run by Riley crony Alex Grinch, was porous at best, and evolved to putrid in recent weeks.  How putrid?  Well, let the Left Angeles TIMES’ Ryan Kartje provide the details:

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).

So it was hardly a surprise that Kartje’s story that provided that sad summary was led by the following:

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.

And, truth be told, it was a long time coming.  And as Kartje continued, those warning signs were there even before this collapse:

(T)hose 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.

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.”

That sort of blind loyalty in the wake of such an embarrassing loss did not sit well even with the most supportive of Trojans, such as the reaction which Martand Bhagavatula of ALL TROJANS ON FAN NATION highlighted early Sunday morning:

At the helm of the criticism (and rightfully so) is defensive coordinator Alex Grinch. Grinch has been a major issue on both defenses he’s coordinated since 2019 (for a deep dive on my takes on Grinch and Riley, click here). The Oklahoma defenses he led under Lincoln Riley regularly underperformed, directly contributing to Riley’s 1-7 combined record in the College Football Playoff/bowl games.

Tons of USC alum and former players have spoken out, but former running back LenDale White in particular had this to say:  He def gotta go Fawk that.

White didn’t hold back, and it’s impossible to blame him. 

As a member of the 2004 (now vacated) National Championship-winning squad, White’s standard for USC football is justifiably high. A program with all the resources, history, and location of Southern Cal simply has no excuse to let coaches as incompetent as Grinch control any aspect of the team’s performance.  White making any comment at all demonstrates the gravity of the problem, as he’s an NFL player ambassador for Conquest Collective, a brand-building NIL agency for student-athletes. 

Yet as Kartje further elaborated, Riley’s confidence amidst the tumult was unwavering:

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.

“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 too good an offensive mind and recruiter to be a victim himself, and, frankly, USC has far too much invested in him both monetarily and with incoming recruits for any more radical changes to be made at this point.  But sticking with his buddy to this point, to this level of embarrassment where as it turns out the 2023 post-season game they may play at SoFi Stadium was not only not last year’s CFB final but this year’s Rob Gronkowski Bowl, even the vaulted Riley can’t be given a hall pass on this call.

As for his now excommunicated bro, well, it’s likely the holiday song that many Trojans backers will have in their heads will be this one::

Happy Holidays.


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