Lincoln Riley faced several questions about his defense in the postgame press conference following a 56-28 victory to open the season.

He sighed and quipped back, “Here we go, everyone’s gonna write the narrative after the first game.”

Riley’s defensive coordinator, Alex Grinch, faced intense scrutiny as the 2022 campaign closed out. Back-to-back losses that saw opponents break 40 points led to calls for Grinch’s job. But Riley backed his coordinator and went into a crucial offseason expecting improvement.

The Trojans talked this offseason about getting bigger, getting deeper, and getting better on defense.

Week 0 brought a mixed bag.

Newcomers on the defensive front showed promise. Riley was impressed with pieces of what he saw there.

But USC gave up 396 yards of offense and allowed San Jose State to average 6.0 yards per play. The Spartans had an explosive play rate of 18%. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro caused USC fits when he escaped the pocket.

“Listen, it’s gonna be a climb,” Riley said. “I like what I see out there in terms of our good plays and how our guys are flying around. Our depth that we have, we will continue to improve. The baseline for that group, the ceiling for that group is much higher than it was 12 months ago.”

The floor, however, also appears to be a little low for comfort. USC committed several penalties that extended drives Riley thought had little momentum prior. Riley was particularly irked by a bust in the secondary that gave the Spartans a touchdown with eight seconds before halftime.

“Quarterback’s a good player. We called several things throughout the game. We had a spy on him a lot of times and a couple of times we got lost in there, got a little too aggressive,” Riley said. “And a couple of times he just flat-out out-ran us. He’s a good player. That part was disappointing.”

The touchdown before halftime cut USC’s lead from 14 down to just seven. Riley wasn’t happy with the offense’s final possession before the score, but the “self-inflicted error” is clearly going to be a sticking point in the defensive film review.

“You take what had the makings of being a good defensive performance, but those are the mistakes you have to correct,” Riley said. “Those are the self-inflicted errors.”

Texas A&M transfer Anthony Lucas had two tackles for loss in his debut. Georgia Southern transfer Jamil Muhammad had a forced fumble and a pass breakup. Georgia transfer Bear Alexander was credited with an assist on the 22-yard sack in the third quarter. Oklahoma State transfer Mason Cobb had a pair of TFLs as well.

“I love what we have in there,” Riley said. “A lot of work to do, and we’re the right people to get it done.”