J. Brady McCollough
Los Angeles Times
Last February, UCLA quietly offered $1 million to lure D’Anton Lynn from the Baltimore Ravens to become its defensive coordinator.
Six weeks into the 2023 season, it is clear that athletic director Martin Jarmond actually found himself a bargain. Lynn is worth double that — the same amount that Ohio State’s Jim Knowles, the country’s highest paid defensive coordinator, brings in.
After just eight months directing what has routinely been one of the country’s most dysfunctional units, Lynn has transformed UCLA into one of the top defenses in the country. His miracle work thus far mirrors the immediate transformation Lincoln Riley executed for USC’s offense last season — only Lynn didn’t bring with him the defensive equivalent of a projected No. 1 overall NFL draft pick and the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner from the transfer portal.
USC fans, frustrated with a second year of the Grinch Who Stole Defense, can now only dream of a scenario in which Riley had ditched Alex Grinch and brought in fresh leadership for his defense. More on that later.
UCLA entered Saturday’s game against No. 13 Washington State at the Rose Bowl ranked No. 6 nationally in scoring defense and No. 8 in total defense. In their disappointing loss at Utah, the Bruins flashed a level of defensive competency that they hadn’t shown during the previous five seasons under Chip Kelly, but their performance came with an asterisk due to the fact the Utes were playing a backup quarterback, not veteran Cam Rising.
After that game, as disappointing as it was for UCLA, I saw the potential for Kelly’s program to break through — if it indeed finally had a defense.
Washington State was the perfect next opponent. The unbeaten Cougars entered Saturday No. 2 in the country in passing offense at 405.8 yards per game behind quarterback Cameron Ward. They’re also the most rightfully angry team in the country, scorned by the conference realignment wave that ripped apart the Pac-12 and left Pullman’s proud program homeless. Think they didn’t want to pillage Pasadena as a parting gift?
Instead, Ward was the one looking for safe haven all afternoon. His pocket was under constant assault from UCLA’s front four. The Bruins didn’t have to blitz to create havoc around Ward and therefore had the bodies to create blanket coverage in the secondary.
I honestly couldn’t believe what I was watching Saturday. I couldn’t believe it against Utah either, but this was against an explosive offense. Washington State finished with 216 total yards. Ward, who hadn’t thrown an interception yet this season, tossed two to the Bruins.
The saying goes that good defense travels. This UCLA defense will travel. It will travel next week to Corvallis for a massive game against No. 15 Oregon State. It will travel across town to the Coliseum Nov. 18. And it will travel to burgs across the Big Ten next year.
Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti was at the Rose Bowl Saturday, getting a look at one of his league’s future members. UCLA looked like a viable competitor, not just the chosen crosstown tag-along for USC.
Did you happen to see the Bruins’ 2024 schedule, released earlier this week? They play at Louisiana State, Penn State, Nebraska and Washington. They host USC, Oregon and Iowa.
Those marquee matchups across the conference will create hundreds of millions of dollars, and the Bruins, unlike Oregon and Washington, are going to enjoy a full share of that loot.
Jarmond should not be shy about spending it to sweeten Lynn’s deal and retain the rest of Kelly’s defensive assistants.
For the first time since Kelly’s arrival in Westwood, it feels like the Bruins are building a sustainable model for success.
Pay Lynn now. UCLA can worry about paying the Berkeley tax later.
USC’s harsh reality
To say that USC played down to its opponent on Saturday night in its 43-41 triple-overtime victory over Arizona at the Coliseum would be an insult to the Wildcats. The Trojans played well below the level of Jedd Fisch’s inspired bunch, which deserved to leave Los Angeles with an upset for the ages.
USC had its embarrassing moments in all three phases of the game, and that’s on Lincoln Riley. But, for as poor as the offense and special teams played, the Trojans’ struggles once again came down to the defense’s ineptitude from start to finish.
It’s easy to see this defense now and criticize Riley for keeping Grinch after the way the Trojans finished last season against Utah and Tulane. At the time, I gave Riley the benefit of the doubt because Grinch was dealing with a depleted roster, particularly in the front seven. USC was supposed to have fortified those holes in the offseason, but it failed to do so, and now Grinch’s unit is going to be exposed the rest of the season.
Arizona’s beefy running backs Jonah Coleman and DJ Williams mauled USC’s front, plowing through tacklers 32 times for 188 yards. Backup quarterback Noah Fifita passed for 302 yards and five touchdowns. The Trojans look clueless way too often.
Riley’s loyalty to those who were loyal to him like Grinch is admirable, but he prioritized his tight circle over what was right for USC. And now a second straight season with the best player in college football has been put at risk.
Hopefully, Oklahoma fans can move on from Riley now. Brent Venables’ Sooners knocked off No. 3 Texas thanks to a classic 34-30 Red River rivalry finish and could find themselves in the top five.
In Year 2 of the Riley and Venables tenures, it certainly seems that Oklahoma has developed a firmer foundation than USC. The Sooners are now more likely to make the College Football Playoff semifinals than the Trojans.
Texas and Oklahoma will presumably rematch in the Big 12 championship game, with the winner having a good shot at the playoff if they run the table from here.