Reasons abound for USC’s missteps
USC coach Lane Kiffin is disappointed because of well, you know, his team’s record.
“With the players that we have, we should not be 6-3,” he said during his weekly conference call with reporters Sunday night.
That’s rather clear.
Once ranked atop the Associated Press top-25 poll, the Trojans are now nearly out of it entirely, falling to No. 21 after back-to-back losses to Arizona and Oregon.
Should they in fact finish the season outside the top 25, they would become the first preseason AP No. 1 team to finish the season unranked in 48 years, when Ole Miss went 5-5-1 during the 1964 season.
Though a trip to the Pac-12 championship game, a berth in the Rose Bowl and a top-10 finish are all still technically in play, because of such astronomically high preseason expectations, 2012 will always — at least on some level — be given the dubious distinction as one of the most disappointing seasons in program history. Fair or not, that will be the perception.
Here’s an attempt to explain what went wrong, at least through the first nine games.
Schematically, something is still off on defense
The most glaring problem for USC remains its defense. Counting the last two games, the Trojans have surrendered a total of 101 points and 1,318 yards of offense. The Ducks set various USC opponent single-game records Saturday for points, total yards and seemingly everything else. So it comes as little surprise that for the second-straight season a sizable portion of the fan base is calling upon Kiffin to fire his father, assistant head coach for defense Monte Kiffin, or at least suggest retirement.
Last season, coaches attributed the “growing pains” to inexperience. The elder Kiffin suggested USC’s defense needed more time to develop and better grasp the nuanced system. And for the final weeks of 2011, it looked like something was working; the trajectory pointed upward.
But Lane and Monte arrived in January 2010, and to maintain “our guys need more time” would be a bit delusional considering we’re now 34 games into the Kiffins’ tenure.
So, it might be time to reboot the system
“We have to re-evaluate the whole thing,” Monte said Saturday night after the game. “I totally agree with that.”
Asked if a philosophical change was in order, Lane added: “We’ve got to look at what we’re doing, obviously.”
Something needs to be fixed — and what exactly needs fixing is probably above the pay grade of a college sportswriter.
Summer roster defections
Over a span of 30 days in late July and August, USC lost two of its most important returners on defense in senior defensive end Devon Kennard and senior cornerback Isiah Wiley. Kennard, who has 135 career tackles, tore his pectoral muscle while weightlifting on the eve of training camp and is redshirting this season as a result. Wiley, who started the final six games in 2011 opposite Nickell Robey, was declared academically ineligible in August and lost his scholarship this season as a result.
Factor both players, particularly Wiley, into the rotation and some of the defensive issues on display in recent weeks are alleviated. The team’s problems on this side of the ball aren’t just limited to schematics — personnel, or the lack thereof, factors in too.
Experience hasn’t been evident
National pundits listed experience as one reason for USC’s lofty preseason ranking, evidenced by the nine returning starters on offense and the addition of junior Silas Redd, a transfer from Penn State. But despite that makeup, they have looked undisciplined for much of the season. Though the Trojans committed just three penalties versus Oregon, they have been penalized a total of 86 times this season, ranking last among 124 Football Bowl Subdivision teams.
Penalties have either stalled offensive drives or given the opposition another chance to move the ball downfield. It’s been a well-documented issue, but also one that’s lingered for much of the season and probably cost the team at least one game (see: Arizona).
The offense has had its lulls
Counting some basic overlying statistics, USC’s offense meets the billing. Yes, it can score with the best of them and put up plenty of points even in a loss as seen last Saturday. On the season, USC averages 37 points and 465 yards per game. But these numbers are slightly misleading given the unit’s uneven performances.
Senior quarterback Matt Barkley has thrown 10 interceptions through nine games and it’s become increasingly likely he’ll surpass his single-season high of 14 set during his freshman season in 2009. Moreover, with those 10 interceptions, the team ranks 84th nationally in this category. And as for fumbles lost, it’s had 11 — 103rd nationally. For every big play, seemingly a fumble or interception is soon to follow.
Too many distractions?
It’s funny, in a sense. USC’s slogan in the months leading up to the season opener against Hawai’i was “prep not hype.” The phrase was even painted on the sidelines at Howard Jones Field, but for much of the fall, there’s been one controversy after another instead. So much for a mellow scene.
In mid-September, USC barred Los Angeles Daily News beat writer Scott Wolf from practice after he reported sophomore kicker Andre Heidari had undergone knee surgery. The ban was later lifted.
A week later, Lane Kiffin stormed out of a post-practice news conference after a reporter inquired about an injured player’s return to practice.
“We made a mountain out of a molehill on the injury reporting, and I told [Lane] that,” USC athletic director Pat Haden said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last month.
In October, USC also received quite a bit of attention for swapping jersey numbers, a potential NCAA rule violation, during its game against Colorado. Redshirt freshman quarterback Cody Kessler wore No. 35, the number of punter Kyle Negrete, during an extra point conversion. He usually sports No. 6.
None of these incidents alone were particularly alarming, but added up, it seems all the more the puzzling.
Maybe Lane Kiffin can’t exist without controversy? Maybe he’s just creative? Maybe he’s just trying too hard?
With a bevy of talent on USC’s, these all appear to be distractions that should have been avoided.
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