New coach, same story: lots of penalties


Discipline.

That would be one of the first words that comes to mind when thinking of the difference between former USC coach Pete Carroll and his successor Lane Kiffin.

Close watch · Penalties have been at the center of attention in recent years as USC has consistently ranked in the top-10 teams in the nation in penalty yards. New coach Lane Kiffin hasn’t been able to stop the trend. - Brandon Hui | Daily Trojan

From his first practice in the spring, Kiffin made sure players touched every line during sprints, paid full attention during practice and adhered strictly to the rules. This was a change from Carroll’s ways when players were seen joking around, talking to one another and partying on The Row.

That is not saying that Carroll didn’t have control of his players or that they were disrespectful; it was just another way of coaching. But that loosey-goosey attitude translated onto the field in the form of penalties. Time and time again during Carroll’s reign, it seemed like there was at least one USC player committing a personal foul every week, and he would only get a slap on the wrist from Carroll.

In comes Kiffin, and it appeared that those days were over. Everyone thought Kiffin would run a tight ship and the amount of stupid penalties and penalty yards would decrease.

Except that hasn’t happened.

Just as in previous years, USC ranks near the bottom in the Football Bowl Subdivision in penalties. In the Trojans’ first two games they have accrued the most penalty yardage (240) and are tied for the most number of penalties in the nation (24). Countless times over those first few games those penalties were momentum stoppers.

Take the Virginia game for example. There was the holding penalty that brought back sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley’s 47-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson. There was another holding penalty after a pass on fourth and two that would have resulted in a first down (this coming after the Trojans’ drive was kept alive when a Virginia player ran into the punter on fourth and seven). Those are 14 potential points that were wiped off the board because of penalties.

And let’s not forget the back-to-back personal fouls the Trojans committed late in the fourth quarter with Virginia stuck inside its own 30-yard line and down by 10 points. All USC needed was a three-and-out and the game would have been all but over.

But the signs of the old USC teams, the ones of recent memory coached by Carroll, came to light. First, there was the horse collar tackle redshirt sophomore defensive end Wes Horton committed, and on the very next play sophomore safety T.J. McDonald hit Cavaliers running back Perry Jones a yard and a half out of bounds.

Kiffin, who doesn’t show much emotion, had to be fuming inside at the two personal foul penalties. Luckily, senior corner back Shareece Wright came to the rescue and blocked the field goal kick at the end of that drive to preserve the two possession lead.

Oh yeah, and redshirt junior tight end Rhett Ellison was kicked out of the game with four seconds left after USC recovered an onside kick. No one still knows why.

It’s understandable if you were watching the Virginia game and thought you saw a bundle of energy in gray hair on the sidelines. During the last three years, USC has been notorious for committing a large amount of penalties.

In 2007, USC had the third most penalty yards per game in the nation with 74.4. The Trojans showed a little improvement in 2008, averaging 1.5 penalty yards less per game. That 72.9 average was still the fourth most in the country, however. 2009 saw the biggest progression of all, as the Trojans averaged just 61.4 penalty yards per game, which still ranked 26th out of 120 teams.

So for USC football, there’s a new coach but same old story.

Kiffin tried to curb USC’s discipline problem on the field after the Hawai’i game but to no avail. He also said he mentioned it in the locker room after the Virginia game. But he decided that his tactics aren’t working, so he’s resorting to some reverse psychology.

“We’ve gone the other way with it,” Kiffin told reporters earlier in the week. “Maybe our players were drawn to it because we paid so much attention to it, so we’re not going to talk about it, because it can’t get worse.”

For USC to compete for a Pac-10 championship this year, it needs to cut down on the penalties. The Trojans already have a thin roster after losing some quality talent over the summer and they need all the help they can get. By committing infractions left and right, USC is shooting itself in the foot. If it comes across a team with a decent field goal kicker and offense (unlike Virginia), the Trojans could lose one of these close games next time, thanks to a careless mistake here and there.

So before the Trojans take the field Saturday and practically give Minnesota a chance to win with careless penalties, they need to take care of the opponent currently beating them.

Themselves.

“Spittin’ Sports” runs every Thursday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or e-mail Kenny at klegan@usc.edu.