The whispers started with USC’s loss to Stanford in mid-September.
They grew louder after the shocking upset loss at Arizona in late October.
When USC Athletic Director Pat Haden indicated before the Notre Dame game that Kiffin would be retained for next season, no matter the result of the looming matchup versus the Fighting Irish, the decision was met with moans and groans.
By the time Notre Dame’s defense stopped USC’s offense within mere feet of paydirt for the second time in seven minutes, fans had been screaming for USC coach Lane Kiffin to be fired for weeks.
But is that really the right move?
Let’s not forget that just last year, we were heaping praises on Kiffin for guiding a program wrecked by probation to a top-five ranking while successfully developing senior quarterback Matt Barkley into a superstar.
This season, USC still averaged 34.2 points and 451.9 yards per game, only a minute decline from last year’s marks of 35.8 points and 456.8 yards.
So what happened?
Well, for starters, Barkley threw for a career-worst 15 interceptions. Whether you want to blame that on poor decision-making by Barkley or poor protection by the offensive line, neither of those reasons can truly be pinned on Kiffin.
Many people are faulting Kiffin for running the ball over and over at the goal line against Notre Dame — but a closer look at the plays that were called reveals that wasn’t even Kiffin’s preferred plan of attack.
On USC’s final two scoring chances in the fourth quarter, the Trojans ran nine plays inside the 5-yard line: five rushes and four passes.
Three pass attempts to Lee resulted in an incompletion and consecutive pass interference penalties on the Fighting Irish. It was clear that Notre Dame wasn’t going to let Lee beat them.
After the penalties gave USC first and goal on the 1-yard line, Kiffin attempted to let his offensive line pave the way for Max Wittek on a sneak. Twice, they failed. Senior running back Curtis McNeal didn’t get anywhere on third down, either.
On fourth down, Kiffin called for a play action pass that left redshirt freshman fullback Soma Vainuku wide open. The play call worked.
But Wittek’s pass was slightly low, and Vainuku couldn’t hang on. Game over.
The cold, hard truth that most USC fans can’t seem to accept is that the players simply didn’t execute on the goal line. Not the offensive line, not the running backs, not Wittek — nobody.
If a team is on the 1-yard line and can’t punch it in on three consecutive running plays, that is not the coach’s fault. The team probably doesn’t deserve to win in the first place.
Some people say Kiffin should have referred to Notre Dame’s game plan against Stanford, when they stuffed the Cardinal’s rushing attempts on a similar goal-line stand.
But any sane coach would not call for a pass play on first or second down when his team is inches away from scoring, especially when his quarterback is making his first career start and has already thrown two interceptions, one of which went directly into the hands of the best defensive player in college football.
With limited room to work, there’s simply too much risk for a game-ending pick.
Truth is, throughout the season, the Trojans’ problems materialized on the defensive side of the ball. Some say Kiffin is too one-dimensional to be a head coach — but can you blame him for focusing on offense when he has two supposed defensive gurus in Monte Kiffin and Ed Orgeron on his staff?
Now, obviously, the elder Kiffin’s Cover 2 scheme hasn’t worked out in three years at Troy, and likely never will. In USC’s five losses this season, the Trojans ceded an average 500 yards per game and gave up the most points (62), touchdowns (nine) and yards (730) in school history in the loss to Oregon.
Any and all calls for Monte Kiffin’s dismissal are warranted, as there are plenty of defensive coordinators out there that could do better.
But can we say that any of the head coach candidates out there could have done an overall better job — especially with recruiting — and shown as much passion for the USC program as Lane Kiffin has over the last three years?
Though this season was arguably the most disappointing in school history, let’s remember that last year’s campaign was one of the most inspiring, from the 38-35 upset of Oregon to the 50-0 throttling of the Bruins.
And despite the frustration that USC fans harbor over this season, the Trojans still have the expected No. 1 recruiting class in the country waiting in the wings.
I say the man responsible for that deserves one more chance.
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