The storyline commanding national headlines last weekend was clear enough — Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck and USC junior quarterback Matt Barkley were set to face off as two of college football’s best quarterback prospects.
Of course, it played out about as well as anyone could have hoped, with the two gunslingers leading their respective teams to an incredible triple-overtime finish.
But as the matchup unfolded in front of an enormous crowd at the Coliseum, a similar storyline went wholly unnoticed as a result — the first meeting of second-year USC coach Lane Kiffin and the newly-employed Stanford coach David Shaw.
Much like the Barkley-Luck rivalry, Kiffin and Shaw share some similarities.
The two coaches are young — Kiffin is 36 and Shaw is 39 — and somewhat new to their current coaching positions. They had previous stints in the NFL, and coincidentally both were coaches in Oakland with the Raiders.
Both held offensive coordinator positions at the schools they now coach — Kiffin was with the Trojans from 2001 to 2006, acting as the offensive coordinator in his last two years, while Shaw served as the Cardinal offensive coordinator from 2007 to 2010— and enjoyed considerable success during that time. Kiffin was an integral part of USC’s 2003 and 2004 national championship teams, while Shaw turned the previously stagnant Stanford offense into a well-oiled machine.
But the greatest similarity, it seemed, was that both coaches had something substantial to prove.
Kiffin, of course, has been branded as a coach without a “signature win” in his two seasons at USC, having failed to close out several major games against ranked opponents. Some of his decisions in the past — on the field and off — have been questionable, prompting doubters to suggest he is too young and immature to be a head coach.
On top of everything, he has faced inflated expectations of success, despite dealing with sanctions that were essentially placed in his lap.
Shaw, on the other hand, faced critics not for his previous work, but because of the expectations he had to fulfill. Former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh has become something of a legend in Northern California, and was directly responsible for the turnaround of the program in the last five years. When Harbaugh left to coach the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, Shaw had his work cut out for him.
Much like the Barkley-Luck battle, there was no doubt that Saturday would prove to be a test for both Kiffin and Shaw.
One-hundred and four points, three overtimes and a fantastic finish later, it seems both coaches came out ahead.
As Kiffin and Shaw took turns raising the bar offensively, it became apparent that the quality of each side’s talent was only rivaled by the coaching that led them.
For the most part, Kiffin’s game was devoid of the usual questionable decisions. He continued to trust the run game, which paid dividends in the form of junior tailback Curtis McNeal’s two touchdowns, and set Barkley up with passing plays that continuously exposed a weakened Stanford secondary.
Shaw showed no signs of being a first-year coach, even when his team faced a seven-point deficit late in the game.
The Stanford offense posted long scoring drives when it needed them most, and matched USC blow for blow — especially impressive considering the Trojans’ consistently great field position after kickoffs.
Kiffin didn’t get a signature win.
But in a week in which expectations soared so high that a blowout loss would have devastated the Trojans, he got about as close as he possibly could have.
It’s not often you see a coach praised for his work in a losing effort, but there has been no shortage of support from fans and media alike.
As for Shaw, he now heads back to Stanford with a No. 4 ranked team and national title hopes still intact. Not bad for Harbaugh’s fill-in.
Most media, analysts and fans were eager to talk about Barkley and Luck in the aftermath of Saturday’s contest. But to a large degree, what transpired at the Coliseum showed that Kiffin and Shaw are ready for the bright lights of the college football national stage.
“One-Two Punch” runs Tuesdays. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email James at firstname.lastname@example.org.