After another stalled drive against Washington State, USC’s star wide receiver, junior Marqise Lee, who will almost certainly be nabbing passes from an NFL quarterback a year from now, stormed off the field.
He yanked off his helmet and screamed in frustration in the direction of the stands that were once filled with cheers but were now rife with boos and chants of “Fire Kiffin.”
Two years removed from a 10-2 season in which the Trojans clobbered UCLA 50-0 to finish the year, the result for USC’s players, many of whom were on that 2011 team, on Saturday was a 10-7 loss at the hands of a Washington State team that couldn’t muster an offensive touchdown.
For Lee, who didn’t catch a pass longer than 10 yards for the first time since his first game at USC, talent will win out over statistics when it comes to his draft status next April. Regardless of how much his production drops this season, his athleticism and overall pedigree ensure that he will be a first round pick. Senior outside linebacker Morgan Breslin, who had two sacks and looked to be at full strength coming off of an injury, will still hear his name called in the early rounds.
This USC roster is brimming with elite talent, stockpiled by USC head coach Lane Kiffin and his predecessor Pete Carroll. And therein lies the real shame of the Trojans’ newfound ineptitude. How unfair is it for the Trojans that, despite a plethora of talent up and down the roster, the startling incompetence of two quarterbacks and their head coach can snowball into a loss to one of the Pac-12’s least talented squads?
The portion of blame between Kiffin and his two signal-callers is up for debate, but there is little doubt that the quarterback situation has become a hot mess.
It was USC’s biggest question coming into 2013 following the 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl that left an unpalatable taste in the mouth of every Trojan supporter. After the quarterback duo struggled in an ugly 30-13 season-opening win over Hawai’i, the pair’s performance went up in flames on Saturday. Redshirt sophomores Cody Kessler and Max Wittek each played a half, and combined to throw for 54 yards with an interception each.
Kessler was named the starter for the foreseeable future on Monday, and with that announcement should come a system tailored to his strengths and set up to mask his weaknesses. The damage, however, has been done.
Many top recruits were in attendance for Saturday’s game. Expecting to see the supremely confident and talented Trojans wallop the Cougars back to Pullman, Wash., they instead were treated to a night full of bubble screens and redshirt sophomore tailback Tre Madden (admirably) punching the ball up the middle. Highly touted defensive ends Kylie Fitts and Eddie Vanderdoes decommitted last year after the 7-6 debacle, as did safety commit Max Redfield. Even with Kiffin’s reputation as a recruiting guru, games such as last Saturday’s, where the standout performance of the entire defense was wasted, are the type that make commits re-evaluate their prospects and move the Trojans down a notch on their wish lists.
The worst betrayal in all of this, though, is suffered by the players already on the Trojan roster. USC’s defense has been outstanding in 2013, allowing three points to a Cougar offense that put up 24 points against Auburn the week before. On Saturday night, it felt as if USC had a better chance of putting points on the board when the Cougars had the ball, rather than when the Trojans did. The level of frustration after constantly stopping your opponent only to see your offense sputter must have been unimaginable.
Sophomore defensive tackle Leonard Williams looked lost as he wandered around the far side of the field following the final whistle. A highly sought-after recruit in high school, Williams chose USC over football powerhouses in his home state of Florida. So far, he’s been treated to a 7-6 season and now, this. Sophomore wideout Nelson Agholor also made the cross-country trek from Florida, and the Trojans’ No. 2 wide receiver was targeted just once on Saturday and has only two receptions all season.
There’s no doubt the 2011 season was a feather in Kiffin’s cap, but USC has now lost six of its last eight games. The players won’t ever admit it, but if on-field emotions and body language were any indicator, they have to be wondering why they are at USC if the incompetence of one coach and two quarterbacks can torpedo their collective efforts.
Nearly all college football coaches lure talent with the promise of being part of a winning program. And though USC went 7-6 last season, there was at least some competence on offense until the Sun Bowl disaster — at least more than 54 passing yards’ worth.
Redshirt junior defensive end George Uko, who forced the fumble that led to USC’s only score of the game, was sobbing as he left the field Saturday night. He didn’t choose USC because he wanted to lose to Washington State at home. None of these Trojans did. Yet that’s the new reality. It’s not fair to the players, and it has to change.
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