“The longer we go, the better we get.”
That’s because in Year 1 under Coach Lincoln Riley, the Trojans led all 14 games they played, sometimes late with wins apparently in hand, but finished their season in Dallas with a third defeat.
Leading up to fall camp on Friday and a month from the commencement of Year 2 at the Coliseum against San Jose State, Riley and his unchanged coaching staff placed a heavy emphasis on finishing like a champion in order to be one.
“We really struggled in the fourth quarter last year,” defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said. “We did. Part of that is maturity. Part of that is understanding what it takes to win, learning how to win. And part of that is the mental resilience part.”
For 72 players who return from the 2022 squad, including six starters on offense and eight on defense, “that was the big thing for the offseason,” said Raesjon Davis, a junior inside linebacker from Norco who appeared in every game last year. “We wouldn’t have never lost if we just finished the fourth.”
Understanding what it takes to close out games has been pressed, drilled, ingrained and massaged into the psyche of a roster that appears reloaded with the depth, size and versatility offered by 11 seasoned players from the transfer portal and 20 freshmen, including quarterback Malachai Nelson, the No. 1 recruit in the country according to ESPN.
And the same will be true for the next four weeks while coaches determine which players are best suited to executing their game plans and stretching toward the finish line instead of struggling to cross it.
“We’ve really tried to, again, harp on that even more during every part of this program once the season ended,” said Roy Manning, who coaches the outside linebackers and is the assistant head coach for defense.
“That’s what it takes to play championship-level football,” he added. “Not the fast start and die out. Or the ups and downs. You’ve gotta be consistent in the fourth quarter. Specifically in our sport, you gotta be your best. You’ve got to play your best.”
Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Caleb Williams led the Trojans’ efficient and explosive offense with the fewest turnovers in the nation, ranking among the top three in a variety of statistics and setting several USC records.
Scoring points wasn’t the Trojans’ late-game concern. Giving them up was.
This prompted a “major deep dive,” Grinch told reporters Thursday at the John McKay Center on the USC campus. “I don’t remember being excited about 11 wins last year because the last 15 minutes stings ya.”
USC gave up 10 points on average in the fourth quarter, he began. The Trojans also yielded 120 yards per game in the fourth, he pointed out. Seventeen points in the last quarter during the last three game days, the final two ending in defeat, he threw on the pile.
In an attempt to sort out what was missing about last year’s late-game defense – cautious not to get lost in the sauce of fixing a team that isn’t around anymore – Grinch tried something he hadn’t considered in 20 years as a football coach.
He and his staff, and the team’s defensive leaders, which no longer features team captain Tuli Tuipulotu, a three-year starter on the line who led the nation with 13½ sacks in 2022, watched film of practice.
They did so to see whether or not the things they designed to do on Saturdays were being compromised by missteps at practice on Tuesdays or Wednesdays.
“It takes some discipline and you’ve got to rip off some Band-Aids to do some of those things,” Grinch said.
The sessions showed that players can get bigger, faster and stronger, or coaches can make adjustments, “but if we show up on game week practice and tear down trust amongst us then it becomes a really difficult task to all of a sudden be a really confident group on Saturdays.”
Grinch called USC’s defensive unit in 2023 bigger, stronger and faster than Year 1. The key will be translating that into a more consistent, physical and tough group capable of showing up through four quarters.
“All that has to take place this fall camp,” Grinch said. “And obviously continue into the season.
“If we don’t play 60 minutes of football games you cannot be a champion in college football. It will not happen.”

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