Opinion: Whether now or at season’s end, USC must move on from Todd Orlando

UCLA’s embarrassment was just the latest episode in a disastrous season for the defensive coordinator.

Defensive coordinator Todd Orlando wears a white USC polo while addressing the media in March 2020.

When USC hired defensive coordinator Todd Orlando on Jan. 24, 2020 — a 20th birthday present of breaking news to yours truly — the selling point was that he could turn struggling defenses around quickly. Orlando had grabbed Texas’ defense by the horns (ha ha) in 2017, turning a unit that ranked 94th in total defense the year prior into the nation’s No. 41 group his first season. The natural thinking: He’d do the same at USC, and then — crucially — the defense would continue to rise.

To his credit — or perhaps to former safety Talanoa Hufanga’s — Part I happened. USC’s defense improved from No. 87 in the country to No. 40 in yards allowed per game in 2020, and from No. 66 to No. 46 in points allowed per game.

No word yet on Part II.

Orlando’s unit has indeed taken the leap that Trojan fans hoped to see in 2021. It was just a leap in the polar opposite direction, and whatever figure was doing said leaping landed on a bed of nails and glass shards. After Saturday’s 62-33 humiliation courtesy of the Bruins, the Trojans have now allowed a staggering 32.2 points and 417.8 yards per game this season.

Somehow, that’s even worse than what Clancy Pendergast did in 2019 (you know, the year that ended with his firing). In other words, when you take a 100-pound pile of manure and proceed to add even more shovels worth of excrement to the heap, suffice it to say it smells pretty bad.

Maybe it doesn’t make sense for USC to fire Orlando now — with two games remaining, an interim defensive coordinator means an entirely new scheme (one would hope) that would be thrown out with the new guy next season anyway. Is it worth the trouble?

Even still, there remains a case to let him go now. Perhaps most compelling: It sends a message. USC’s most embarrassing games of the season — Utah’s first ever win at the Coliseum (42 points), Oregon State’s first road win over USC since 1960 (45 points) and UCLA’s highest tally in the history of the crosstown rivalry (62) — have fallen largely on his shoulders. Redshirt seniors defensive lineman Nick Figueroa and center Brett Neilon alluded Saturday to a much-needed cultural reset. Maybe Orlando’s departure would kickstart that.

Either way — whether it happens now or at the season’s merciful end — Orlando cannot fit into the Trojans’ puzzle moving forward. USC’s myriad problems will not be solved until the remnants of the Clay Helton era follow the ex-head coach out the door. (I heard Georgia Southern’s defense could use some work.)

Admittedly, it’s not as though USC is trotting out a team of first-round NFL Draft talent only for Orlando to singlehandedly squander its potential at greatness.

But USC has also been flatly outschemed time and time again this season in ways that only a weakness at DC can explain. (If I have to see junior linebacker Drake Jackson, USC’s best pass-rusher, in man coverage one more time I just might gouge my eyes out.)

The Trojans allowed an incredible 9.2 yards per play against UCLA. Good thing they had an eXtRa WeEk To PrEpArE.

“I feel like from a schematic standpoint, people just aren’t doing their job for the most part,” junior cornerback Chris Steele said. “Just broken plays, missed assignments that have been going on.”

Yep! And they’ve been going on all season. Has anything changed? Nope! That’s on Orlando.

Saturday’s onslaught came through the air as well as on the ground, much like it did against the aforementioned visitors to the Coliseum and several other opponents this season. When your entire team is getting beat into the turf on a weekly basis in every facet of the game, even by squads unquestionably less talented virtually across the board (like Arizona, which put up 27 points against USC’s defense), it’s a sign that the issues run beyond the players on the field.

And remember that whole “I’m Todd Orlando, I’m aggressive and tough” shtick? (“You can’t practice soft and play hard” was a quote?) Yeah. Question: How’s the tackling going?

“We wanted to make sure we stopped the run,” head coach Donte Williams said after the game. “In the first half, I thought we did a good job of that. In the second half, we did not do a good job of that, right? [Lol. Right.] And it’s almost like guys started getting beat down. All of a sudden, we was hitting their running back, and he still was going forward for four or five more yards, and that’s a problem.”

Answer: Apparently not so well. By the way, USC did a merely fine job stopping the run in the first half. UCLA still ran for 92 yards on 5.1 per carry, which isn’t superb.

Here’s another fun fact, if you’re a masochist: USC has allowed more or the same number of points in the second half than the first to eight of its 10 opponents this season. If that’s not an inability to adjust, I don’t know what is.

And that theme held true against UCLA. You thought 28 in the first half was bad? Here’s a nice, cool 34 in the final 30 minutes just to rub a little salt in the wound. In my opinion, Orlando’s greatest triumph of the evening was the kickoff return that UCLA redshirt junior running back Kazmeir Allen took 100 yards to the house in the third quarter, because it meant his defense would remain on the sidelines for consecutive possessions.

At least Orlando was willing to speak to the media about the abominable performance. No, really, he spoke to the media — generously taking the time to inform them he’ll talk to them on Wednesday.

Yeah. Maybe it’s best if he doesn’t.