When Marqise Lee went down with a left knee injury in the opening moments of the fourth quarter of Saturday night’s game against Arizona State, it surely seemed like that would be the most significant news to come out of USC football this weekend. Sure, the Trojans were being manhandled by a Pac-12 opponent, but the result of the game took a backseat to the broad effects of the loss of the former Heisman candidate.
Had Lee torn his ACL? Had we seen the last of him in a Trojan uniform? Would he remain No. 2 on USC’s all-time receptions list behind his old running mate Robert Woods?
But the real bombshell wouldn’t come until 4:35 a.m., when USC’s athletic department released an e-mail statement announcing the long-anticipated dismissal of former USC head coach Lane Kiffin. Suddenly, all speculation centered not on Lee, but on the state of the entire USC football program.
As Lee was taken off the field on Saturday night, the cart transporting him didn’t have room to turn around on Arizona State’s narrow sidelines. So it simply rolled in reverse at a glacial pace up into the tunnel leading to USC’s locker room, as Lee managed to flash one of his trademark grins despite the pain that was surely coursing through his leg. Nothing has been confirmed about Lee’s injury, but it’s never a good sign when the entire team huddles around a fallen player.
Lee’s slow exit from Sun Devil Stadium was the perfect metaphor for the plight of the football program under Kiffin, who compiled a mediocre record at Troy (28-15) and lost 7 of his last 11 games as head coach. Even when the Trojans did win, it rarely came with the perceived effortlessness in blowouts and the sexiness that came along with the high-powered offenses and dominant defenses, all of which were common throughout former coach Pete Carroll’s tenure. As the Trojans kept on backing up and regressing with Kiffin behind the wheel, Haden merely sat in the backseat and grinned.
That is, until now, as Haden has delivered the final blow to Kiffin’s tenure.
When Kiffin was asked the first question about his job security at Saturday’s postgame press conference, redshirt sophomore quarterback Cody Kessler, who was on deck for interviews, let out an audible sigh, shook his head and rolled his eyes. It was clear he thought that the blame for the team’s flaws should not be laid at his coach’s feet.
So USC’s players did seemingly stay loyal to him until the end, never criticizing Kiffin or whining about his playcalling — something that could have happened on a team that contained immature, spoiled players or a coach that didn’t have control of his team.
But Kiffin’s most widely-recognized redeeming quality, his recruiting prowess, was hardly shaping up to be a strong point this season. With just seven verbal commitments so far from the class of 2014, the Trojans are ranked as having the No. 63 class in the nation by Rivals.com, only better than two other teams in the Pac-12.
Recently, the main knock on Kiffin has been his performance as an offensive coordinator and playcaller. Concerns were initially roused by the deflating loss to Notre Dame last year before peaking in this year’s matchup against Washington State, when the Trojans’ offensive game plan was more appallingly conservative than the crowd at a Donald Trump rally.
But what finally got Kiffin fired was his shortcomings as a head coach and as a leader.
As the third quarter wound down, the Trojans found themselves deeper and deeper into a hole inside the canyon of Sun Devil Stadium. Behind 48-21, USC’s sideline was absolutely barren of emotion — much like any interaction Kiffin has ever had with the media. Some coaches would have tried to rouse their team with an inspiring go-get-’em speech, or at least a few words of encouragement and pats on the back. But it was clear no such inspiration would be coming from Kiffin — not then, and not during any future showdown at the Coliseum.
So now, as the Trojans are staring down the barrel at another substandard season in Los Angeles, USC’s situation seems to be even bleaker than it was at the conclusion of last year’s historically disappointing campaign.
The squad is down to two healthy scholarship receivers after losing Lee to that gruesome knee injury. The offensive line seems lost in pass protection. The once praised defense now appears to be in shambles after facing its first Pac-12 road test.
And now it is no longer Lane Kiffin’s responsibility to try and fix those problems — USC fans, you can now exhale — but don’t expect the rest of this season to be any prettier now that the elephant in the room has been cut loose.
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