Usually the first game of the season answers questions about a team — it gives the team a chance to forge a sense of identity and define structural parameters for expectations. When I covered spring practice almost six months ago, few games on the USC schedule mattered as much to me as USC-Hawai’i.
The reason was that the Trojans, coming off the most disappointing season for a preseason No. 1 team (numerically) in NCAA history, had yet to establish a sense of identity. The first game would presumably answer all questions — it would be the climax and denouement of a team’s preseason quest to find its soul.
In short, USC-Hawai’i was not that climax. What CBS Sports broadcasted to many of the Trojan faithful was essentially the same team I had seen in spring practices: The freakish athleticism of freshman tailback Justin Davis. The immediate game-changing abilities of freshman safety Su’a Cravens. A bloodthirsty front seven on defense. A risky man-coverage scheme that, if somehow cracked and exploited, could mean hemorrhaging points to Pac-12 offenses. And, of course, the game saw a rotation at quarterback between sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek.
The last point was the most well-worn because it is, in fact, the most intriguing. USC head coach Lane Kiffin only added to the fire when he revealed he would name the starting quarterback in Saturday’s game against Washington State.
Ever since this past spring, anyone who knew about my access to the practices was asking me the same question: Kessler or Wittek? For fans of USC football, the anticipation was comparable to, say, the finale of the first season of American Idol. Justin or Kelly? Kessler or Wittek? Pick a side. Defend it.
I vacillated my allegiances as often as the two quarterbacks rotated with first team reps.
On the one side, there is Max Wittek. The quarterback’s steely, wolf-like features translate to his demeanor on the football field. In the huddle, Wittek is all business. Name the play, any routes or assignments, break. Line up. Audible if necessary. Cadence. Snap.
In the three-second whirlwind of blockers, jerseys, tight ends and defensive backs circling like vultures, Max Wittek simply stands still. His composure borders on stubborn defiance, and his 6-foot-4, 235-pound frame may justify it.
The one word that perhaps best describes Wittek’s on-field actions is “trust.” For one, he trusts his blockers to fashion him an adequate pocket. And, perhaps to their peril, he trusts his receivers to make the play. It’s been said that Wittek has a cannon of an arm, and, in Wittek’s case, it’s a sort of back-handed compliment. He fires in his receivers’ general direction and trusts them to come down with the ball. And why the hell wouldn’t he? His receivers are named Marqise Lee and Nelson Agholor.
But it’s that same attribute that, in turn, becomes his biggest flaw. In last year’s game against Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, the wind rendered his giant passes virtually uncatchable. The Trojans’ once-vaunted offense became one-dimensional as it sputtered to an embarrassing 21-7 loss. He struggled in situational positions (something he’s worked on throughout the offseason) and worked on his shorter routes. But if Hawai’i showed us anything, it’s that Max Wittek might throw line drives but he still wants to hit the home run.
As fate would have it, Cody Kessler is Wittek’s foil. Lacking the natural physical gifts of his teammate, Kessler compensates by taking a more cerebral approach to the game. Kessler trusts his teammates. But unlike Wittek, he vocalizes that trust. He’s animated in the huddle, acknowledging good plays from his teammates and pointing out missed assignments.
Even after the snap, Kessler looks more animated — surveying the field while always half-poised to run should his protection break down. His shiftiness is by necessity — his 6-foot-1, 215-pound frame isn’t very conducive to punishment. Yet his toughness is every bit as real as Wittek’s. While the ball doesn’t whistle out of his hand, he has a respectable throwing arm. Where Kessler compensates in this regard is his ability to read what the defense gives him. Hawai’i may not have been such a great example, but Kessler would rather squeeze out a 3rd and 3 than take two shots downfield and be stuck with a 3rd and 10 situation.
Kessler’s easier smile is also a relief for the media, who hang onto his detailed breakdowns and seem drawn to his affable demeanor. By contrast, Wittek is a compendium of one-sentence answers and sports clichés. There couldn’t be two more different pro-style quarterbacks in college football and yet they’re vying for the same job.
At some point, head coach Lane Kiffin is going to have to end the speculation and pick a definitive starter (beware the dual-quarterback system), but you get an idea of why the decision is so hard. He’s picking between schools of thought, between methods of leadership and between personalities. Ultimately one will prevail and become the heart of this offense, and it’s all in Lane Kiffin’s hands.
For a campus that boasts perhaps the finest film school in the country, it’s a little funny that USC’s football coach is crafting its most compelling storyline.