Alex Grinch said Cal was good on first and second down, it wasn’t just a third down thing. The USC defensive coordinator thought the Trojans just didn’t make plays in the second half. They were close, but “we can’t be OK being close to the quarterback,” he told reporters after the game.

Grinch used the phrase “search high and low” with regards to defensive solutions in the face of another disappointing performance from USC’s defense in an otherwise exciting win.

The Trojans beat Cal 41-35 Saturday night to move to 8-1 on the season just a year removed from going 4-8. They led 34-14 going into the fourth quarter. But they had to survive a late rally, with quarterback Caleb Williams picking up a third-and-5 to ice the game and let USC run out the clock after Cal had drawn within a possession.

“Listen, if you’re winning, you’re doing more good than bad,” head coach Lincoln Riley said. “We’ve just got to do more good and we got to continue to eliminate some of the bad football that has held us back from playing our best.”

Riley felt the offense had opportunities to put the game away early and it didn’t. He felt the defense didn’t tackle well in the second half. In all three phases, Riley thought the Trojans were not up to their lofty standards.

Cal has topped 450 yards of offense only twice this season — against Arizona, and now against USC. The Wildcats have one of the country’s worst defenses. USC doesn’t want to be in that category.

“We chose to coach on defense, we chose to play on defense, and so there’s an expectation that we have involvement in the winning around here,” Grinch said.

Bears quarterback Jack Plummer threw for a season-high 406 yards. It was his first game with more than 300 passing yards since Sept. 4, 2021 when he was the Purdue quarterback. The Bears had almost 300 yards of offense just in the second half alone, biting off 7 yards a play as Plummer picked apart the USC secondary.

In the final 30 minutes, he was 22-for-30 throwing the football. He had 263 yards and all three of his touchdowns.

“Really disappointing. It’s a 60-minute football game, that’s not new,” Grinch said of the second-half performance. “It’s one thing to talk about it, you gotta go do it. You get excited in the third quarter because you’re happy, then all of a sudden you’re fighting for your life at the tail end of the game. Obviously we haven’t gotten that message across. … We’ve got to finish ball games.”

Riley thought there were just too many almost.

“I felt like we had some momentum, like we were getting to the passer, we stopped the run early in the half, and it felt like we kept bailing them out with penalties,” he said. “We had several pass interference penalties that were big — one down there in the low red zone that was a huge play. It kind of felt like they really didn’t have anything going and when you give a team momentum like that, you’re kind of asking for them to take advantage of it and they did. I thought there towards the end of the game we didn’t tackle the way we did in the first three quarters of the game. We did some really good things defensively, but obviously didn’t finish anywhere close to the way we expect to play.”

Corner Mekhi Blackmon said “there’s definitely some frustration” within the defensive ranks about how they’ve struggled to close games of late. USC was up 31-16 on Arizona last week and let the Cats hang around. In the one-point loss to Utah, USC gave up a 15-play, 75-yard game-winning touchdown drive that spanned 5:27 of game clock and left less than a minute in the game.

Grinch said they need to have a sense of urgency this week on the defensive side of the ball with the shorter week of prep. He also said some of their issues can’t be fixed in 72 hours.

“We’re trying to find playmakers out there,” he said.

The defense produced multiple turnovers in each of the first four weeks. They haven’t had multiple in a game at any point since. They’re still among the top 25 defenses in terms of turnovers produced, but the defense’s opening-month success was fueled in no small part by splash plays. The Trojans had 14 takeaways in the first four games.

They have four in five games since. As those have dried up, USC hasn’t been good enough in its fundamentals to shut games down.

“We can be excited about a win and pissed off about how we played,” Grinch said. “We can do both. And we’re going to be.”