When USC head coach Lane Kiffin announced in July at Pac-12 Media Day that he’d be calling plays for the upcoming 2013 season, it made sense to me.
Sure, USC fans desperately wanted Kiffin to absolve himself of playcalling duties. But after last season’s 7-6 debacle, Kiffin knew that another disappointing campaign would result in his dismissal. And if this was to be the do-or-die year, he wanted to be in charge of his own destiny.
Well, he certainly made sure of that on Saturday night — and this do-or-die season is already on life support.
I wrote a column last fall after the regular season, defending Kiffin on the merits of his incoming recruiting class and even saying that his conservative playcalling near the conclusion of the Notre Dame game made some sense considering the circumstances.
But no one can defend the offensive disaster that occurred against Washington State, as Kiffin played incredibly safe and the ensuing results were unbelievably sorry.
Boos rained down in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum as Kiffin led his team back into the locker room after one of the ugliest games in recent Trojan football history.
And yes, that includes last year’s fiasco of a season. At least last year included offensive highlights from Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. This year, the offensive playcalling hasn’t just been conservative — it’s been plain awful.
The elite talents of Lee are being wasted on screen passes that are commonly recorded as rushing attempts because they’re completed so far behind the line of scrimmage.
After the humiliating 10-7 loss, Kiffin defended the lack of shots downfield by pointing out the “drop-eight” scheme that the Cougars frequently employed on Saturday night, dropping eight players back into pass coverage and seemingly cutting off the Trojans’ vertical passing lanes.
“You’d like to think you’d run the ball pretty efficiently during drop-eight coverage,” Kiffin said. “It didn’t seem in our best interest to put a QB back there and let him get hit, let balls get tipped and have the ball turn over.”
Maybe not, but you can’t tell me that means the reigning Biletnikoff award-winner should be held to 27 yards on seven catches — against any team or scheme, really.
“I wish I would’ve had some opportunities to go deeper and stretch the field with Marqise and Nelson [Agholor],” Kessler said after the defeat. “Those guys have the speed that can get behind even the drop-eight.”
With Kessler and Max Wittek, Kiffin is in charge of two quarterbacks that were ranked as the Nos. 2 and 3 pro-style quarterbacks, respectively, in their class by Yahoo! Sports. While watching USC’s team scrimmages this fall, I saw Wittek loft several beautiful deep balls to Lee and Agholor and witnessed Kessler’s shifty mobility in the pocket and pinpoint accuracy on intermediate routes across the middle.
These feats came with the disclaimer that USC’s defense might not be that good, that the pair’s success against their defensive teammates could just be a product of another underachieving defense.
Well, if there’s anything positive to say about this team, it’s that its defense is undoubtedly far better than last season’s.
I shudder to think what the results of the Trojans’ first two games would look like if Clancy Pendergast hadn’t been installed as defensive coordinator, bringing along with him a relentless scheme that has forced turnovers and sacks by the bushel to keep USC in both games they’ve played this season.
And against that unyielding defense, the two quarterbacks combined to go 28-for-42 with 449 yards in the team’s final scrimmage.
Admittedly, the quarterbacks weren’t subjected to the same amount of pressure they’d see in real games, since in scrimmages they were ruled down as soon as a defensive lineman touched them. But those stats at least show that Kiffin wasn’t afraid to test his gunslingers’ ability to throw deep balls, and they mostly passed the test.
Surely they could have at least come close to replicating those results against the likes of Hawai’i and Washington State — right?
What’s more is that even if Kiffin resolved to primarily call run plays against the Cougars, why couldn’t he at least split more touches between redshirt sophomore tailback Tre Madden (32 carries), freshman Justin Davis (2 carries) and the rest of the Trojan backfield (zero touches)?
Kiffin said several times in preseason camp that USC’s running back depth was the best he’d had in his four years at the helm. But, time after time, Madden was sent to bowl over the Cougars’ front seven, and it might be endangering his health.
“Thirty-plus [carries], that’s a lot,” Madden said after the game. “I’m pretty banged up right now.”
Kiffin needs to rely less on Madden and put more trust in his pair of quarterbacks next week against Boston College. If he doesn’t, he’ll continue to compromise the prestige of the entire USC football program.
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