What a waste.
The USC football season Saturday essentially ended up being a big fat waste.
A brilliant offensive wasted. A wasted Heisman Trophy winner. A wasted full coliseum. A vain revival of Trojan pride.
Everything wasted because Coach Lincoln Rileyis the refusal to fix an indefensibly poor defense that has forever etched itself into this season’s tombstone with a single chilling word.
The end came Saturday night in front of a boisterous, sellout crowd that roared Caleb WilliamsThe Trojan-led offense gave fifth-ranked and undefeated Washington 42 points and 515 yards.
And still lost.
They lost because they… Alex Grinch-led defense gave Washington 52 points…and 572 total yards…and an unimaginable 316 rushing yards to become the 117th ranked rushing team in the country.
They lost 52-42the Huskies steamrolled coordinator Grinch’s national embarrassment while handing the Trojans their third loss and virtually knocking them out of the Pac-12 championship hunt with two games left.
A fall that began with dreams of a national championship is now over Rob Gronkowski Bowl or bust, and the aftermath of that final dagger was absolutely heartbreaking.
There was Williams, leaning into the stands, hugging his mother and crying openly.
“I want to go home, cuddle with my dog and watch some shows,” he said.
There was linebacker Mason Cobb, sitting with six other deserted teammates at the postgame media conference, his head buried in his hoodie.
“Somehow it looked like the boys weren’t ready to perform yet,” he said.
There was security Calen Bullockspoke quietly and looked confused.
” All [the[ big runs, either someone is not in their gap, or someone isn’t lined up,” he said.
Finally, at the very end of the night, there was a quickly emptying Coliseum field dotted with giddy Huskies dancing around grim security guards, yet another team that showed up and ran the Trojans ragged.
USC’s defense ranked No. 111 nationally before this game, and proceeded to play like it should, in fact, be dead last.
“Just pissed,” said Riley. “Pissed that we missed this opportunity.”
Riley should be mostly pissed at himself, because Riley did this. He did this when he didn’t fire Grinch after last season’s late collapse. He did this when he didn’t fire Grinch after this season’s early struggles.
Riley did this by protecting his close buddy from Oklahoma even as Grinch’s struggles have cracked the foundation of a program Riley was hired to build. Riley did this while displaying a loyalty that feels worse than nepotism, he did this while being paid $10 million a year to know better.
Grinch will surely be replaced now, either immediately or after the season, but it’s too late. It should have happened long ago, and in a leadership fail that will forever symbolize his first two seasons here, Riley did this.
There being no doubt the firing will happen, the real question is whether Riley will admit it should have long since happened.
So Saturday night I asked him, did he have any regrets about how he’s handled the defense?
“I understand the question, I know it’s y’all’s question to ask it, but I’m not into the big picture questions right now,” Riley said, later adding, “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, but there are times and places for those discussions and those will happen at the appropriate times.”
Sadly for the sake of a talented team that deserves better, the appropriate time has already passed. Grinch should have long gone by now, and Riley isn’t the only one who has been shrinking from his duty.
Where in the world is new athletic director Jennifer Cohen? She could have pushed Riley to make the tough call on his pal. There is recent precedent for that sort of shove.
This week Iowa athletic director Beth Goetz announced that offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, son of coach Kirk Ferentz, would no longer be with the team after the end of the season.
She had to fire him because apparently his father could not. It was the end of a nightmare that feels like the USC situation. Grinch is not related to Riley, but it feels like it, and it seems like the only way to get rid of him would have been intervention from above.
That didn’t happen, and so USC was left with one last stand to save Saturday’s game, midway through the fourth quarter, Washington with the ball on its own nine-yard line and leading by three.
If USC holds, it has the offensive firepower to drive down and win the game. But USC couldn’t hold. USC never holds.
On the first play of the drive, Washington running back Dillon Johnson took a pitch and raced 53 yards virtually untouched down the sideline to set up the Huskies’ game-winning touchdown after Johnson’s one-yard run.
Fifty-three meters. On the first play of the biggest drive of the game. Incomprehensible.
Johnson, a running back who had never gained more than 100 yards in a game, ran for 263 yards and four touchdowns. Unthinkable.
Johnson gained 199 yards before contact. Exactly, almost 200 meters before he was touched. Inconceivably.
“They slowed down,” Johnson said afterwards. “They didn’t push as hard as we thought. It kind of made our day easier.”
And just like that, the Trojans’ season was somehow over.
“Yeah, I mean, obviously it wasn’t good enough,” Riley said of the run defense. “I mean, not at all. A couple of big plays in the run game, certainly at bad times.”
In this case, “unfitting” is defined as giving up big chunks of yardage, as the incredibly stumbling Williams throws for 312 yards and three touchdowns, the resilient Austin Jones rushes for 127 yards, and the spectacular Taj Washington catches passes for 122 yards.
Earlier this week, Grinch took responsibility for the defense’s failures.
“I couldn’t be more disappointed in myself,” Grinch told reporters, later adding, “We need to get it fixed, and fast.”
There’s only one quick way to resolve things at this point, and it’s hard to imagine Grinch still being in his current position at the end of the month.
It’s the right step. But it’s too late.
What a waste.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.