Time for Trojans to rise to the occasion

Don’t be fooled by the sanction-imposed façade hovering over the USC football season because there is still plenty at stake in 2011.

Sure, a bowl ban can diminish BCS title hopes or attendance numbers — as was evident by some of the sparse crowds at the Los Angeles Coliseum last year — but no longer can the past be used as a scapegoat for the present.

Last season’s up-and-down 8-5 campaign served as a landmark year for Trojan apologists, who turned to every excuse in the book: A new coaching regime, a less-than-physical fall camp, a still-maturing sophomore quarterback, a difficult defensive scheme and more.

The excuses for last year’s easily forgettable season seemed semi-reasonable, however, given the calamity of circumstances that hindered future progress for the program.

But year two of the Lane Kiffin era begins tomorrow afternoon, and with it comes the abolishment of the “Get out of jail free” cards the Trojans seemed to pile up in 2010. I plead with you to hold Kiffin and his squad to a higher standard.

Expecting success is not a sign of entitlement, especially when all of the pieces are in place for a hallmark season.

While a January trip to New Orleans will not be in the cards this year — undefeated or otherwise — from the sounds of it, the Trojans’ pursuit of perfection has not wavered. Though substance-free clichés like “we plan to win the games on our schedule” and “a bowl ban doesn’t mean we can’t go undefeated” were repeated throughout fall camp, now is not the time to let those words fall on deaf ears.

Make each player accountable.

For the first time in his head coaching career, Kiffin will actually have a chance to perform his duties for a second full season. Potential NCAA violations, said to have occurred while at the University of Tennessee, are now in the rear view mirror. Twenty-one months have come and gone for him to sink his teeth into a supposed dream job, and more so than any previous roster placed before him, there is pure talent and depth at just about every position.

For junior quarterback Matt Barkley, this season is not just another stepping stone to playing on Sundays, it’s a résumé-defining year. Barkley has been afforded the rare opportunity to play in a pro-style offense since the day he stepped foot onto campus back in 2009.

His cookie jar this season is finally full of top-notch targets, in sophomore Robert Woods, junior Brandon Carswell and freshmen Marquise Lee and George Farmer. He has potential All-Americans protecting him in senior fullback Rhett Ellison and junior left tackle Matt Kalil and a cerebral center in junior Khaled Holmes to lead an otherwise inexperienced offensive line.

Under former coach Pete Carroll, the keys to the castle were initially bestowed upon him without prior merit, and now the third-year starter has a chance to pay it forward.

In doing so, while he won’t end his season raising a trophy full of oranges like Carson Palmer or Matt Leinart, something tells me Barkley won’t need much luck if he leaves for April’s NFL draft.

At 71 years old, assistant head coach and defensive guru Monte Kiffin doesn’t exactly need a fire lit under him as the season gets underway. But for a career that has spanned six decades, no season could have left a worse taste in the former Super Bowl champion’s mouth than last year’s defensive debacle — the worst statistical season since USC began keeping track in 1955.

The defensive guru has very little to prove at this stage in his career, yet for a man the Tampa-2’s second-act in Southern California needs to be better than its debut. Or we might be watching its swan song.

Individual standouts from a year ago — junior safety T.J. McDonald and sophomore Nickell Robey — return  to solidify the secondary. Though both bursted onto the scene last season, the next three months present an opportunity for the tandem to leap from one-hit wonders to elite playmakers.

Health is no longer a concern on the defensive line as senior defensive tackle Christian Tupou  and junior defensive end Nick Perry finally look to be at full-strength for the first time since 2009. Add in Devon Kennard’s transition back to defensive end, and USC’s versatility along the front seven might parallel that of the historic 2008 unit.

Even on special teams, I am happy to report that Houston, we have no more problems making comical field goals from inside the 35, thanks to the right leg of true freshman Andre Heidari, whose range is projected to be from 49 to 52 yards out.

Needless to say, you should demand more from this year’s team across the board.

For those of you who bleed cardinal and gold, it’s not time to get defensive, it’s time to turn the tables away from self-sympathy. Let’s ring in the new season by adopting a slightly tailored mantra: You can’t sanction high expectations.


“For The Love Of The Game” runs every other Friday. To comment on this article, visit dailytrojan.com or email Dave at dulberg@usc.edu.