LOS ANGELES — There were four USC players scheduled to speak to reporters on Tuesday night, each strolling over from the practice field turf to the wall where availability is held, each lagging for a brief second with the throng of cameras assembled.
Linebacker Mason Cobb strode ahead, placing himself directly at the center of post-Alex Grinch scrutiny.
“I’ll go right in the middle,” said Cobb, a senior and team captain.
Three days earlier, Cobb was a shell of himself, face reserved and words clipped after the 52-42 loss that sealed former defensive coordinator Grinch’s fate. But before practice Tuesday, with a pair of assistant coaches now sharing one coordinator’s chair and general instability swirling before a final chance to save their season on Saturday, Cobb pulled the defense together and delivered a message: What’re you gonna do? Tuck your tail? Or stick your fist out and fight?
“It’s like you lose a brother, man,” Cobb said, referring to Grinch. “It hurts a little. It stings. But we have to keep focusing on the next game. That’s our only option.”
“There’s no – can’t lay down,” Cobb continued, as peppy as he’d been for weeks. “We don’t got time to lay down. We got Oregon this week, still.”
Collegiate football programs changing coordinators during a season, certainly, is not unprecedented; heck, Arkansas just fired its offensive coordinator a couple of weeks back. Less common, though, is firing a coordinator while days away from one final shot at a conference championship.
If USC (7-3 overall, 5-2 Pac-12) beats Oregon (8-1, 5-1) this Saturday and beats UCLA the following week – okay, a tall task, given the results of the past few months – the Trojans would earn a trip to Las Vegas with a shot at a Pac-12 championship trophy. And head coach Lincoln Riley made it clear Monday that he’d fired Grinch, in part, not as a white flag but because this team still had something to play for.
The caveat to that, though: do new co-defensive coordinators Shaun Nua and Brian Odom, elevated from respective roles as defensive line coach and inside linebackers coach, make any tweaks to the scheme Grinch set in place?
“That’s the million dollar question right now,” Nua said Tuesday.
Neither coaches nor players revealed much on Tuesday – Nua confirmed he’d be on the field Saturday and answered “we’ll see” when asked who would be in charge of play-calling. Odom, meanwhile, emphasized the importance of not straying far from concepts players were comfortable with. But the answer, still, to a million dollar question appears to be yes. To a degree.
Cobb said he had talked with Odom on Sunday about the coach’s defensive ideas, and that Odom was listening to players’ opinions. And Nua acknowledged a change was made at coordinator to look for a defensive spark.
“We might go in with one call,” Nua said, “if that’s what it takes for them to fly around and play as physical as possible.”
The slate, in one sense, has been wiped clean. Cobb, someone who has said he has to immediately go home after games and watch them back multiple times, didn’t even watch film from the loss to Washington. But this USC team still brings a dizzying array of defensive question marks into one loud exclamation point of a Eugene atmosphere on Saturday.
Oregon has looked for several weeks like the best team in the Pac-12; the Ducks rank second in the nation in yards per game and have steamrolled an assortment of decent defensive units. There is no room to figure out new concepts on the fly. No room for error.
“My focus is, like, every minute matters now,” Nua said.
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