TUCSON, AZ – “You are who you are.”

Those were the words of USC head coach Lincoln Riley during the Trojans’ bye week when asked if his defense was getting the respect it deserved for leading the nation in turnovers. The argument went that while the numbers may seem exceptional, they were produced by Trajan’s defense and should be judged by them.

But by that logic, after another shaky performance in Saturday’s 45-38 win over Arizona, it might be time to ask: Is this what USC’s defense is right now?

The Trojans allowed the Wildcats — a good but not great offense — to gain 543 yards. It was the second straight game that USC allowed an opponent to pass the half-thousand-year mark, and the Trojans have given up 1,105 yards in the last two contests.

The sad numbers are huge. In Saturday’s postgame interview, Riley pointed out some of the reasons for the lopsided score. Injuries to linebackers Eric Gentry and Ralen Goforth certainly played a role. Riley also noted a number of spectacular plays by Arizona quarterback Jayden DeLaurie and his receivers.

Fair enough. But Riley also used USC’s rushing attack as an explanation. In a game full of offensive possessions, the defense will also have plenty of runs. And that’s fine, until you remember that USC allowed 14.6 yards per carry and 6.3 per carry.

Most concerning, though, is that USC spent the bye week between those two games trying to address issues that have lingered throughout the season around tackling and communication. And neither has improved.

In a loss to Utah before USC’s bye week, there were 18 missed tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. Riley and defensive coordinator Alex Grinch talked about how tackling will be the center of attention and emphasis.

Against Arizona, after all that work, USC had 20 missed tackles.

That played a big role in Arizona’s nine passes of 10 or more yards and 11 passes of 15 or more. But also, apparently, it was not possible to pass the command through the defense.

“I’d say we didn’t communicate again today, everybody’s not on the right track,” Cullen Bullock said. “You have one half of the field that got a play and the other half probably didn’t get a play, or one person didn’t get a play. It’s just little things.”

Sometimes those little things just magnify some late-game heartbreak, like against Arizona. Other times they’ll lose you games like they did against Utah.

USC is ranked ninth in the polls, 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the Pac-12. Despite allowing 381.6 yards per game, the Trojans are second in the conference in points allowed (22.1) thanks to forced turnovers, sacks and red zone defense.

Against Arizona, all three of these factors played a role in USC’s victory. Safety Bryson Shaw intercepted a pass in USC territory to stop the Wildcats in the third quarter. Linebacker Shane Lee lost 12 tackles, leading to an Arizona touchdown in the fourth. And USC held the Wildcats out of the game on two of five red-zone plays.

So, eight games later, USC is what it is. The issues with tackling and bleeding yards may not be fixed this year, but the unit also has strengths that contribute to wins.

“You have to rely on your fundamentals, which is playing hard, doing your job and things like that,” Lee said. “And that’s what we have to hope for as a defense no matter what. No matter who is playing, how good or bad we are doing, we have to rely on our commitment to what we believe to be our fundamentals.”


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