A big piece of the message from Lincoln Riley and his coaching staff to the rest of the USC team during fall camp has been about intensity.

When camp ends and game week begins, prep matters just as much as performance. The best coaches in college football’s history all say the same things — if practices are harder than the games, your team has a chance to be pretty good. Riley has told the team he doesn’t want them “saving up” for Saturday. Tuesday and Wednesday are going to be especially physical.

And he hopes a big benefactor of that approach will be the USC defense.

“If we see on Saturday what we’ve been seeing on the practice field, I think there will be a lot of excitement about the way defense is going to be played here going forward,” Riley said during an appearance on the Trojans Live radio show on Monday.

In camp, Riley has seen a defense that’s hungry to improve.

The Trojans gave up 6.4 yards a play last season, the second-worst mark in the Pac-12 and the first time in over a decade the defense had been at 6 or more. It gave up 30 points a game in a season for the first time.

Riley’s defensive staff has done this kind of a job before, though. Defensive coordinator Alex Grinch landed at Oklahoma after the 2018 season. OU gave up 6.1 yards a play that year, the second-worst mark in the Big 12. Within two seasons, the Sooners had improved to second, shaving a full yard off the average. They went from one of the worst turnover-producing teams in the league to the best, from one of the worst sack-producing teams in the league to the best.

“I’ve got a lot of confidence because I watched this whole scenario unfold from 2018 to 2019 at the previous spot. Watched a defense that had lost some confidence and wasn’t playing with the same edge and then all of a sudden we flip around the next year the defense is a strength of our football team, a strength of our team that won a league and went to a Playoff.

“We’ve got the right people there, we’ve added some great pieces. … You win on defense. You cannot win consistently, you cannot compete and win championships if you’re not a really darn good defensive football team. I like the makings we have. I like the attitude our guys play with.”

But the rubber meets the road on Saturday… or something a little less clichéd. Riley takes the field at the L.A. Coliseum for the first game of his tenure at 3 p.m. PT against Rice. All eyes will be on the offense, given all the firepower Riley brought with him to Los Angeles, but USC’s defense has some real questions to answer.

“All the talk’s over,” Riley said. “Eventually, you’ve got to play football at some point. People can do all the talking in the offseason, they can do all they want, people can say all they want. Eventually, you’re going to have to play. There’s some people that look forward to it and some programs that maybe like to talk more than they like the action of it. I want us to be a group that’s about action.”