Defense dominates first four games

A swarm of USC defenders fights to defend an Oregon State receiver.
The defensive squad forced four turnovers against the Beavers in Corvallis, Ore. Saturday and held the line on a night when the offense struggled to find the end zone. (Louis Chen | Daily Trojan)

Before the start of the 2022-23 college football season, many wouldn’t have thought that USC’s defense would be winning them games. With a flashy new quarterback in sophomore Caleb Williams and an onslaught of transfer receivers and running backs, the offense was in the spotlight, and for good reason, as they have been playing lights out — for the most part.  

However, Saturday’s matchup against the Oregon State Beavers served as a defining game for a defense that has surprised college football fans and pundits alike. Amidst the offense’s questionable performance, the defense kept Oregon State to 14 points and had 4 interceptions.

“We had to find different ways to win tonight,” said Head Coach Lincoln Riley in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “It ended up being kind of a slugfest… Of course — our defense, the four turnovers, the huge stops, closing the game — you just can’t say enough about how we played defensively. You just can’t. And a lot of guys stepped up, played through a lot of things. It was a gutsy performance by our defense.”

Even with an offense as physical as Oregon State’s, the Trojan defense was able to keep the Beavers to only 167 receiving yards and 153 rushing yards with only one defensive penalty while Oregon State committed six.

“I was just happy with how we responded as a team,” said senior inside linebacker Shane Lee. “We were put in a tough situation that we haven’t been in before, and I think we responded in a great way. We came together, we pushed each other.”

Lee, who played for the University of Alabama for three seasons, transferred to USC in the spring. He praised fellow transfer and sophomore inside linebacker Eric Gentry’s play over the last four games, particularly against Oregon State where Gentry recorded his first interception of the season. 

“[His size is] definitely unique, and I’ve never played with somebody with that kind of length,” Lee said. “It’s new but it’s cool to see. It’s fun to play with him.”

Gentry stands at 6-foot-6 and showed his athleticism with his second quarter interception, which bounced off of his hands once before Gentry secured the pick. 

“Normally that height is reserved for the edge, so to be able to move like he can and have some of the instincts that he has as a young guy is pretty impressive,” Riley said about the Trojans’ lead tackler earlier this month on the football teams’ Trojan Live program. 

The defense carried the team while the offense appeared to be struggling before putting together an 11-play, 84-yard game-winning drive. The team didn’t score a touchdown in the first half after starting the season averaging 4 touchdowns in the first half across their first three games.

On the other hand, Gentry, redshirt freshman defensive back Ceyair Wright, redshirt junior defensive back Max Williams and redshirt senior defensive back Mekhi Blackmon all made interceptions for USC, killing Oregon State drives that, at times, threatened to put victory out of the Trojans’ reach. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch was pleased with his unit’s showout. 

“I thought that guys did a nice job. Just looking at their faces and the response to the way the game went,” Grinch said. “I was really proud of them that way, but you can only do that if you’re performing that way. And so, I was certainly pleased overall.”

With an average of 3.5 forced turnovers per game and at least 4 four takeaways in three of the 4 four games played, the team’s defense is one of the best in the nation. Facing an Arizona State team that has already committed 46 turnovers this season, the Trojans could be poised to add to their season total. 

USC is now ranked No. 6 in the nation after their win over Oregon State. And with an offense that has shown its incredibly high ceiling and a defense that has surpassed expectations thus far, the Trojans could continue to climb the rankings.