Can the Trojan defense be renewed?

USC prepares for Oregon in its first game without coordinator Alex Grinch.

Junior quarterback Caleb Williams leads the nation this season in passing touchdowns (28). In the Trojans’ loss against Washington last weekend, Williams shined, throwing for 312 yards and three touchdowns. (Ethan Thai / Daily Trojan)

The Trojans will travel to Autzen Stadium later this week to face the No. 6 Ducks in USC’s first game without former defensive coordinator Alex Grinch in the Lincoln Riley era. 

In Grinch’s place, defensive line coach Shaun Nua and inside linebackers coach Brian Odom were promoted to co-defensive coordinators. Odom previously assumed defensive coordinator duties at Oklahoma when Riley and Grinch left for USC (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) before the Sooners played their Bowl game in 2021. 

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This weekend will mark Nua’s first occasion as an acting defensive coordinator, but he has an impressive record of developing edge-rushing talent. At Michigan, Nua coached Aidan Hutchinson, who was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. 

The two coaches have their work cut out for them. One could argue that if not for a last-minute loss against the Washington Huskies (9-0, 6-0) in Seattle, Oregon (8-1, 5-1) has been the cream of the Pac-12 crop. 

The Ducks followed their road loss with a 38-24 win over the Washington State Cougars (4-5, 1-5), who started the season hot and found themselves ranked No. 13 in the AP poll in Week 6. Then, two weeks ago, Oregon secured potentially the most impressive Pac-12 win by overwhelming Utah (7-2, 4-2) in Salt Lake City on both sides of the ball, holding the Utes to just 241 yards of total offense in a 35-6 victory. 

And if Oregon’s superiority over USC was still in doubt, the Ducks cruised past UC Berkeley (3-6, 1-5) 63-19, making the Trojans’ 49 points conceded to the Golden Bears look even more atrocious. 

Beyond just the results, the Ducks possess one of the nation’s elite offenses, a well-oiled machine led by college football’s most experienced-ever quarterback in fifth-year Bo Nix. Nix has started 56 games (and counting), the most ever in NCAA history. 

The Alabama native’s accuracy and processing have been his greatest strengths this season. Nix has completed an absurd 78.1% of his passes for 25 touchdowns and just two interceptions with an average of 9 yards per pass attempt, the highest of his career. 

The combination of his pocket presence and offensive line also keeps him from taking sacks with any frequency. Opponents sacked Nix just five times last season and four times so far in 2023.

Naturally, the buzz around practice this week was how USC’s new co-defensive coordinators might impact the remainder of the season. At this late stage in the season, major schematic changes seem unlikely, so Nua wants to focus on his unit’s mindset.

“Just continue to increase the energy and the guys’ mindsets,” Nua said to reporters after Tuesday’s practice. “Keep buying into what we’re trying to do, just [an] increase of intensity in their mindset and get them to just execute at a high level.”

Nua and Odom do not yet have a plan for who will play calls and at what time on Saturday. 

“We’ll see,” Nua said. 

Odom was complimentary of Oregon’s offense ahead of the weekend’s game.

“I mean, they’ve got a tremendous offense,” Odom said. “Obviously, starting quarterback, great skill players, probably more physical offensive linemen than we’ve seen all year. The backs run extremely hard. They’re tough to tackle. And they do a great job with their scheme.”

In the team’s defensive game plan, Odom stressed that he wanted to play to his players’ strengths.

“You’ve obviously got to be respectful to the players in terms of allowing those guys to play fast and do what they know,” Odom said. “And you don’t want to veer too far off of that, because if you do that, they’re gonna be very confused and everybody else will be disappointed.”

If the Trojans can muster any confidence ahead of this game, it will have to come from their offensive identity. When you have a Caleb Williams there’s a way — and against Washington, the offense performed as well as it has all season.

A first-half fumble aside, the junior quarterback played an almost flawless game. 

The 2022 Heisman Trophy winner passed for 312 yards and three air touchdowns while adding 16 yards and a rushing touchdown on the ground. His total rushing yardage doesn’t capture the importance of some of his scrambles, like his first quarter spin cycle move for a first down on 3rd & 1. 

For those planning to watch on television, the game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Fox. Oregon is favored by 15 points and the ESPN Analytics matchup predictor gives the Ducks an 83.3% chance to win. 

Senior inside linebacker and team captain Mason Cobb effectively issued a rallying cry to his team in an interview after Tuesday’s practice.

“Why not run around?” Cobb said, referring to him and his teammates giving their all in practice. “Why not go around and hit people? Fly around, be loud. And you’re here, you’re here in California. [We’ve] got two more games, guys would kill to be in this position.”

Trojan fans will hope their team shows that all-out effort in Eugene, even if USC’s Pac-12 hopes have faded from view. 

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