It worked against unranked Minnesota. It might not this week.
Despite poor playcalling and a few other head-scratching decisions against the Golden Gophers, USC managed to notch a win Saturday in its season opener. But if USC coach Lane Kiffin follows the same script against Utah, the Trojans could be looking at a souring 1-1 record to start the season — or perhaps even more glaring — a 0-1 mark in the Pac-12.
In retrospect, it’s easy to say Kiffin made several odd coaching decisions Saturday, with the two failed two-point conversion attempts and the turnover on downs that could have otherwise given life to an offense that failed to score at all in the second half.
It’s understandable he wants to take some chances to live up to the infamous chants students used to show support for former coach Pete Carroll.
But the more disturbing trend, one that will put USC at a serious disadvantage against the upper-echelon Pac-12 teams, is that Kiffin doesn’t seem to trust all of his players.
He’s confident in junior quarterback Matt Barkley and sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods — that’s for sure. Looking at the play-by-play for the Minnesota game, though, reveals that he lacks any sort of confidence in the offensive line. The vast majority of Barkley’s 45 pass attempts were short tosses, as he averaged only 6.8 yards per attempt and registered only nine connections for 10 yards or more, according to ESPN.com’s play-by-play game breakdown.
Then there’s the uncharacteristically imbalanced offensive game: along with Barkley’s 45 air attempts, there were only 28 carries.
Kiffin isn’t ready to trust his line to protect Barkley long enough to throw deep routes, and he’s not ready to live on the ground until he’s satisfied the run blocking is top-notch.
The reliance on the pass might render the offense one-dimensional, something a more seasoned team like Utah will capitalize on. In fact, once Minnesota started double-covering Woods on almost every play, the offense halted altogether. And as a result, USC went scoreless in the second half.
And the Gophers didn’t even have the benefit of recent game tape. You can be sure Utah coach Kyle Whittingham is going to have his players prepared for a pass-heavy plan from USC, who won’t have the element of surprise on its side in the first half of the game. That could be trouble for the Trojans and put a lot of pressure on that yet-unproven defense.
More troubling than even the lack of faith in the offensive line, though, was the repeated shelving of freshman kicker Andre Heidari, recruited out of Bakersfield, Calif., to patch up the kicking problems with Joe Houston last year. Kiffin said himself Heidari has range out to 52 yards. The way he treated him Saturday didn’t reflect that.
The two-point conversion attempts notwithstanding — as there’s little doubt Kiffin trusts Heidari to kick an extra point — a pair of fourth-down decisions against Minnesota exposed Kiffin’s hesitancy to go with the new guy.
In the third quarter, up 19-10 at the Minnesota 20-yard line, USC elected to go for it on fourth down, despite being well within field-goal range. A rush attempt from redshirt freshman resulted in no gain, and the Trojans turned the ball over.
In the fourth quarter up 19-17 at the Minnesota 32-yard line, Kiffin elected to take the delay-of-game penalty and punt rather than give Heidari the chance to put USC up five and force the Gophers to get into the end zone.
Why not give him the chance to kick?
Even driving from the 32-yard line with two minutes left to play is going to be difficult, and USC has the opportunity to remove a field goal from Minnesota’s options if Kiffin decides to kick the field goal.
The defense for the early two-point conversion attempts was Kiffin wanting to get practice going for two in game situations. Then why wouldn’t he want to practice the long field goal in a game situation, too?
It seems like a bit of a double standard.
Had redshirt sophomore cornerback Torin Harris not made up for a bad game in the secondary with his game-ending interception, Minnesota likely could have driven into field-goal range, nailed the kick and sent the Trojans home with a loss to start the season.
With Utah’s strong running game, its more experienced secondary and the general unpredictability and potential for upset that comes along with conference play, Kiffin’s going to have to limit his role in how the team plays, step back and let the players he assembled handle the game execution.
Otherwise, the now-unranked Trojans might not be as fortunate.
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