When it comes to a battle of perception, USC coach Lane Kiffin is probably going to lose. And he’s probably going to lose about 11 out of 10 times.
It comes with the territory of being Lane Kiffin, in large part.
Most USC fans have never exactly instilled a ton of faith in the Trojans’ second-year coach. He’s a good playcaller and a sharp recruiter — at the very best. Or so it goes.
It was open season on Kiffin following the Trojans’ 43-22 loss at the hands of Arizona State last week in Tempe, Ariz. Though it was only September of his second season with USC, the speculation as to his future with the program began. The criticisms snowballed. A FireLaneKiffin.com hit the interwebs.
But nobody has flinched. Kiffin is accustomed to the scrutiny. It came when he served as USC’s co-offensive coordinator in 2005 and 2006. It came when he worked for Al Davis in Oakland. It came when he coached in the Southeastern Conference.
And five games into his second season at USC — his “dream job” — he is being scrutinized more intently, more frequently than at any point before.
It’s a fight he just can’t win.
Reporters have grumbled about his post-game spin. Cardinal-and-gold backers have moaned about a perceived indifference. Opposing fans have, well, jeered.
“Obviously [we’re] very pleased to get the win, to get to 4-1,” Kiffin said Saturday. “The most important thing all week was to rebound from our first loss of the season and get to 4-1 going into the bye week.”
Few, however, conceded Kiffin’s remarks about the Trojans’ overall record thus far.
Last weekend none of USC’s wins in 2011 appeared particularly impressive. Minnesota, which lost to USC 19-17 in its season opener, fell to Michigan 58-0. Utah, which many considered to be the team’s quality win of the season, lost 31-14 at home to Washington. And Syracuse was upended by Rutgers 19-16 in double overtime.
Add to the fact Arizona is now 1-4, USC’s strength of schedule doesn’t appear all that strong.
For a Kiffin-coached team that has won 80 percent of its games nearly halfway through the season, optimism is not exactly oozing out of the USC program most have come to define as mediocre and average at this point in the season.
Despite a record-setting display from junior quarterback Matt Barkley, who threw for 468 yards, eclipsing Carson Palmer’s single-game mark, most of the talk centered on USC defensive inabilities.
“It’s definitely an honor and it feels great,” Barkley said of his performance. “But at the same time, it doesn’t even feel like it at all because it was such a tight game and it was going back and forth.”
USC gave up 41 points against the Wildcats, one week after similarly surrendering 43 at Arizona State. Against the Sun Devils, the Trojans were burned by big plays. On just the fourth play from scrimmage, junior running back Cameron Marshall scored on a 70-yard touchdown run. Even senior linebacker Shelly Lyons later scored on a 41-yard interception return.
When hosting Arizona, USC prevented the big play, not allowing a gain of more than 27 yards. But consequently, it conceded short completions en route to giving up 37 first downs, a school record, along with 554 yards of total offense.
Against Arizona State, it also lost the turnover battle, finishing minus-four. Against Arizona, it finished plus-one. Seemingly, it was inconsequential, as the Trojans won by just a seven-point margin.
Under normal circumstances, USC would be two wins away from being bowl eligible. It would be a half-game removed from first place in the Pac-12 South with a chance to play in the inaugural conference title game. Instead, it’s fighting to remain relevant and Kiffin is fighting the perception that the program has hit the metaphorical iceberg.
His attempts, however, have been largely fruitless.
On a day where there were plenty of positives, Barkley’s record-breaking numbers, junior safety T.J. McDonald’s two interceptions and a combined 399 receiving yards from sophomore Robert Woods and freshman Marqise Lee, a school record, a few glaring pimples stood out.
A defense that looked confused once again, a bizarre decision to go for it on fourth-and-one with a 14-point lead late in the fourth quarter.
Kiffin wants you to believe USC is close. He’ll talk ad-nauseam about Barkley and Woods, about Lee and about a young team that is still growing.
But fans are naturally impatient. They’re accustomed to winning and winning handily. This is USC, after all.
You can cite record-breaking performances and feel-good stories. Neither, however, allows Kiffin to captivate a fanbase that has become increasingly frustrated.
Some things are too tough to ignore. USC has given up 40 points in back-to-back games for the first time in school history and that’s an awfully tough thing to spin.
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