A fake extra point gone awry in the first quarter of USC’s 50-6 victory over Colorado last Saturday serves as just the latest example of the Trojans’ alarming lapse in judgment when it comes to showing common courtesy for opponents.
Allow me to clarify.
When USC lined up for the extra point with the score already at 13-0, a player wearing No. 35 positioned himself as the holder. But punter Kyle Negrete, who usually wears the number, wasn’t on the field.
Rather, backup quarterback Cody Kessler had been told by the coaching staff to swap jerseys before the game started. And on that play, he grabbed the snap and took off for the end zone, but the play was called off because of holding.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m far from an avid defender of the many unwritten rules that exist in different sports. Plenty are steeped in traditions that make very little sense to anyone at present. But there remains a fine line between employing normal gamesmanship and doing something unethical. It’s worth pointing out, under coaching ethics in the official NCAA rulebook, “changing numbers during the game to deceive the opponent” is deemed as a number of unethical practices.
So USC’s deceptive use of jersey numbers, while not illegal, only compounds the Trojans’ penalty problems that seem to give off an impression of a lack of respect for the game’s most basic practices.
As Orange County Register writer Rich Hammond pointed out, USC stands as one of just a few remaining programs in the country without names on the backs of their jerseys. That’s a personal preference, not an excuse to take advantage of the situation to intentionally throw off another team.
USC was favored by more than 40 points entering its game against the one-win Buffaloes. They weren’t going to lose. Really want to go for two with the score sitting at 13-0? Probably not worth it, but I’m not going to argue with a surprise playcall when the game is still within reach. Once again, though, that fine line of gamesmanship enters the picture. A trick formation is one thing, taking advantage of an opportunity barely available to others for such a small payoff becomes another.
But the bigger problem here lies in the disconnect between what the coaching staff has been preaching and what’s happening on the field among players. Following the ejection of freshman defensive lineman Leonard Williams against Colorado — one of the day’s 10 penalties — USC coach Lane Kiffin said his team’s lack of composure was “a disgrace to the university.”
But that was nothing new for the Trojans, who lead the nation in penalties per contest. USC has been, without a doubt, an unruly football team for most of the season. Though they are committing an excess of false starts and offsides, these are completely preventable.
Kiffin can talk about how disappointed he is in the lack of discipline, but at some point the coaching staff has to take some of the blame as well. Bush-league moves like swapping Negrete’s jersey for Kessler’s only exacerbate the problem. It contributes to USC’s “dirty” image, which, despite the incredible amount of penalties, really isn’t a fair characterization.
Kiffin gets a bad rap for his stoic persona and “win at all costs” mentality, but for the most part, he’s been on his best behavior since returning to Los Angeles. No need to ruin that now over something so silly and unnecessary.
For the time being, USC’s consistent mental slip-ups and childish attempts at gaining an edge haven’t really cost them. But the first half of the team’s schedule was a walk in the park compared to what’s approaching.
Penalty yards add up, especially against teams capable of turning an extra first down into points. Kiffin and company need to focus and set a proper example for the rest of the team. If he really chides his players for making boneheaded mistakes, USC should be able clean up what has become an unexpected but mammoth flaw. The Trojans are simply too motivated to let one of the only things they can control during a game negatively affect them. And they’re too talented to have to resort to plays like the one in the early minutes of Saturday’s game.
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