Oct 28

Lost in Space: Lane Kiffin and the 2012 Trojans

Were the expectations outsized? Obviously. Are the results – to this point – acceptable? No.

As I look ahead to next Saturday at what – win or lose – was to be a shining moment for a USC football program that was laughing in the face of overwrought NCAA sanctions to compete for a national championship only three years after beginning its probationary period, it’s a shame that the luster has come off the battle with Oregon. It’s even a bigger shame that Lane Kiffin’s USC football team is wholly responsible for that fact.

Matt Barkley made some mistakes in the loss to Arizona, but nothing to compare to Lane Kiffin’s tactical miscalculations.

Yesterday’s absurd 39-36 loss at Arizona was the ultimate antithesis of the Trojans’ epic 38-35 win at Oregon a season ago – the game that set the expectations for the 2012 team. And while the players on the field deserve their share of the blame for the mistakes that handed the game to a decent but outmanned Wildcat team, many of those mistakes trace back directly to the head coach’s office. And the fact that USC could have made all of those errors and still should have won the game going away with even the simplest of coaching decisions lies directly at the foot of Kiffin’s desk.

During the Pete Carroll era, one of the defining characteristics of USC football was the mentality – from the game’s opening kickoff – that we are going to play our game and you, the opponent, will have to adjust to what we do. It’s become clearer, week by week in 2012, that that theory is completely out the window under Kiffin. Whether you want to call it overthinking, timidity or (in the kindest possible evaluation) a coach looking to protect his players because of the depth issues facing a team on sanctions, USC has consistently showed the desire to adjust its game to minimize the perceived strengths of its more dangerous opponents. While in-game adjustments to the reality of what’s happening on the field are normal (and a place where Carroll-coached teams continue to regularly outshine Kiffin-coached squads), changing a team’s personality week to week is a risky way to coach football.

Not only that, but in games like yesterday – a game where the USC offense’s personnel advantage over its counterparts on the Arizona defense was massive – it reeks of conservatism. Late in yesterday’s game, I tweeted: “Defining difference between Carroll and Kiffin: given a chance for the killshot, Carroll always took it. Kiffin is becoming JRIII.” While, to the uninitiated, this reference to former USC coach John Robinson might look strange, Kiffin’s effort – both early and late in yesterday’s loss – brought the sometimes overly conservative Robinson to mind.

From the get-go, it was clear that USC was interested in running clock and trying to keep the Arizona offense off the field for long stretches. The Trojans continually put themselves in third-down situations early on and, while they were more proficient in those situations yesterday than they’ve been most of the season, needlessly extended drive after drive. When those initial three USC drives, all of which reached inside the Arizona 25-yard line, ended with a pair of turnovers and a failed fourth-down pass, USC found itself down 10-0.

Tell me: what’s the point? If you’re able to score at will against a defense, why not score as simply and quickly as possible and put the onus on the opposition’s offense to keep up with you? Why concede – immediately – that you’re playing Arizona’s game? Why show that you’re so concerned with what Arizona is capable of on offense that – instead of taking advantage of a defense that is comparable in talent and depth to Colorado, sadly – you’re going to slow down and minimize the capabilities of your offensive talent? Why do you want to run more plays, thereby giving your questionably-disciplined team more chances to commit silly, drive-stopping penalties? Why give the officials, who know USC’s M.O. now and come into games on alert for the most minor Trojan miscue, more chances to throw those flags? Why does it take a quarter-and-a-half to fully realize that Arizona couldn’t keep up with passes down the field to Marqise Lee (and for that matter, Robert Woods) if it had 14 players on the field? Why not just go for the jugular? When I watch Lee play, I see a player who completely believes he has a chance to score on every play. It’s inspiring to see that confidence and desire in a player. And, yesterday, he was actually in a position where he was as close as he’ll ever be to being 100-percent correct in that belief. It’s Lee’s kind of confidence that points out Kiffin’s timidity even more clearly.

If ever there was a player who shouldn’t have been disappointed in a game, it was Marqise Lee after his epic performance in Saturday’s loss in Tucson.

So, after 20 minutes of screwing around and trying to “protect the defense,” Kiffin finally realizes, “Hey, let’s get the ball downfield, especially to Marqise, and see if they can stop it.” Great! Almost immediately, USC takes off on a 28-3 run – overcoming even the dumbest of penalties (and, by the way, who knew that if you run fewer plays to score, you have fewer opportunities to commit the dumb penalties that are becoming one of this USC team’s trademarks) – and takes total control of the game early in the third quarter. Lee is setting records with every catch, and the USC defense (much to Kiffin’s consternation, I imagine) is actually performing better through the game’s first 40 or so minutes when the Trojan offense is pumping the ball up and down the field.

And then? Kiffin reverts to the formula that had put USC in a 10-0 hole in the first place. You saw it. I saw it. Instead of going for the kill – and USC had two possessions with a chance to take what would have been a deflating 35-13 lead, likely ending all Arizona hopes – the Trojans almost voluntarily removed Lee from the offense, got conservative (aside from one lonely deep shot to Woods that Barkley overthrew) and went cold. Before Kiffin readjusted, Arizona was not only back in the game but in the midst of a 26-0 run of its own that would put USC in Hail Mary mode at the end of a game it should have rightfully won going away – even with the ridiculous penalties and turnovers that haunted the performance.

This was the outcome Kiffin and the Trojans barely avoided two weekends ago in Seattle, when some timely hits by the defense stunted Washington’s burgeoning momentum while the USC offense played it needlessly safe. Those timely hits weren’t forthcoming yesterday, and a defensive performance that, through about 40 minutes, was looking rather solid fell apart against the performance of a much better quarterback operating a much more creative offense than UW’s Keith Price.

So, aside from the disappointment the loss to Arizona heaps on top of (what at the time felt like) a more acceptable defeat at Stanford, where the Trojans were simply outplayed over the course of 60 minutes, what does 6-2 (with a very high likelihood of 6-3 a week from now, facing must wins against Arizona State and UCLA just to get into the Pac-12 title game) tell us about USC and Kiffin?

For one, it tells me the image of Kiffin as a master of “Eff You” football, amusingly posited on a regular basis in Zack Jerome’s fantastic and comedic Arrogant Game Previews and Recaps, is becoming more and more difficult to back up. Certainly, the journalists who cover college football are on alert for any Kiffin error, be it on the field or off. The mistakes he made in his early days as a coach with the Raiders and Tennessee haunt him, though he’s grown more mature, every time anything remotely questionable (like last week’s ridiculous number-switching “controversy) comes up. But how Kiffin has coached the 2012 USC team leaves him open to even more criticism, for how the Trojans have played and how Kiffin has coached are far from the brand of “arrogance” that has long been a positive for USC football. The aura of timidity turns that “arrogance” – read here as the Carroll Way of “Here’s what we’re gonna do. You figure out how to stop it.” – to a perception of petulance and immaturity. I’d far prefer the Kiffin of Jerome’s columns to the one operating on the USC sideline this season.

When you toss in the ridiculous number of personal foul and unsportsmanlike conduct penalties committed by USC – even supposed team leaders – that perception grows. There is no excuse for nearly all of those penalties – especially at this point – but to see a captain like T.J. McDonald take an obvious taunting penalty on the game’s THIRD DEFENSIVE PLAY (a penalty that turned a three-and-out for Arizona into an eventual touchdown), well, that’s just plainly a failure by the player to learn. And who do we look at first when a player fails to learn such a lesson? His coaching staff.

Here’s the reality: Lane Kiffin likely will be USC’s coach through the 2014 season at the very least. With a 24-9 mark over 2 ½ tumultuous and sanctioned seasons, there’s no way (at this point) for the USC athletic department to sell that Kiffin is unfit for duty. However, with key leaders like Barkley, McDonald and Khaled Holmes now down to their final full month as Trojan footballers, Kiffin faces a clear turning point in his career over the next 13 months. This is a team that could literally finish the season anywhere between 6-7 and 12-2. It’s physically capable of beating any team left on the schedule – but its lack of a true personality and error-prone ways also mean that the Trojans can be beaten by every team left on the schedule. And, especially after yesterday, can anyone rightfully figure out what to expect from the Trojans in 2013?

Kiffin needs to decide who HE is going to be as a head coach. By making that decision, which is one that will require a big jump in maturity and self-searching, only then will he be able to tell us what the real personality of the USC Trojan football program will be under his control. Burying your head in a play card while the season slips away because of your timidity and your team’s lack of self control is not going to cut it. This is a team that’s clearly in search of a leader, and Kiffin hasn’t gotten the job done on that score through the season’s first eight games.

Look, Kiffin sure as hell isn’t Pete Carroll (not many are). But – even with a performance like yesterday’s that was mindful of the late 1990s USC program – he isn’t quite Paul Hackett either. Yet. He’s too young of a coach – too unfinished a product – to be tossed aside that blithely. But, he’s not the coach at a mid-level school working his way up (he could have stayed at Tennessee if that was the gig he wanted). He’s the coach of the premier college football program on the West Coast; the only football program west of Texas that has any respect on a national level. It may not be fair, but he needs to become a finished product quickly or risk heading down the Hackett Highway.

How Kiffin and the Trojans respond to Saturday’s brutal, senseless and needless loss over the next four weeks will write the first chapter in one of two books – Kiffin’s ultimate demise at Troy, or the beginning of a truly new era of USC football personified by a more steadfast and professional young coach.

Oct 26

Midseason Musings Around the Pac-12

We’ve essentially reached the midway point of the Pac-12 conference schedule. There have been plenty of highlights, plenty of pratfalls and a helluva lot of entertaining football. Before we turn the corner and head for home, let’s take a look – from top to bottom – at where we stand heading into Halloween weekend:

  • Just how good is Stanford? While many people mocked my pick of Stanford finishing the regular season and conference title game with a perfect 13-0 mark, it seems many of those same folks now suddenly realize the Cardinal have an incredibly generous schedule – the main reason for my choice. If Stanford passes what suddenly appears to be a real test this weekend at USC, all that really stands between them and hosting the inaugural championship game is a Nov. 12 date with Oregon in Palo Alto.
  • While Andrew Luck has maintained his edge in the Heisman Trophy race, it’s been the continuity David Shaw has brought to the program – toughness, an excellent rushing game, an attacking defense – that has the Cardinal in this position. It will be interesting to see how that translates without Luck in 2012. Will Stanford maintain its level or will it fall back to the conference’s lower division, where it has resided for most of the past 40 years.
  • Oregon’s offense continues to roll, even with LaMichael James and Darron Thomas missing games due to injury. A pair of freshmen, QB Bryan Bennett and RB/WR DeAnthony Thomas, look ready to carry Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense well into this decade. Whether that’s good for the conference in the long run will be decided by whether the Ducks can actually make a case for their style of football in a key non-conference game or two.
  • Another positive – it was refreshing to see the Ducks in what appeared to be actual football uniforms last Saturday in Colorado.

    Oregon dressed up as a football team last Saturday.

  • In the Pac-12 South, it appears the only thing between Arizona State and a Pac-12 title game appearance is disinterest. The Sun Devils’ only game remaining against a team with a record currently above .500 is their season-closer against Cal on Nov. 25. Prior to that, the schedule reads: Colorado (1-7), at UCLA (3-4), at Washington State (3-4), Arizona (2-5).
  • Unfortunately for ASU, their propensity for penalties, combined with Pac-12 officials’ general incompetence, does make the Devils ripe for an upset should any of those four games remain close late. Just ask ASU’s fans about some of the curious calls that happened in Eugene a couple weekends back.
  • USC and its fans are walking on air after the Trojans’ 31-17 drubbing of Notre Dame last weekend. Notre Dame and its fans seemed offended at Lane Kiffin’s insinuation last week that this game was the Irish’s “Super Bowl.” However, with the pomp and circumstance surrounding the game (first night game in 21 years, new helmet paint, rally towels, nearly two dozen key recruits on the sidelines, the East Coast media drooling over the possibility that ND could not only win but cover the ridiculous 9-point spread), it’s hard to see where Kiffin was wrong.

    Jawanza Starling’s third-quarter fumble return was the turning point in USC’s victory at Notre Dame.

  • It’s also hard to see where any of the Trojans who said the Irish quit on the game are wrong. Now, USC hosts Stanford on Saturday with a shot to ruin the Cardinal’s shot at a national title. It’s quite a tall task, even for a team that is unexpectedly 6-1 and just played its most complete game during the Kiffin regime. Nonetheless, it’s amusing to see ESPN Gameday back at the Coliseum even though the “Worldwide Leader” has done everything possible to play up the “death of USC” during the past 24 months.
  • Washington made its first appearance in the top-25 in almost a decade. Then, the Huskies immediately were embarrassed on national TV, 65-21, by Stanford – allowing a school-record 446 rushing yards to the Cardinal.
  • Still, despite the struggles of Nick Holt’s Husky defense, it’s hard to dispute the progress Washington has made this season. QB Keith Price has been spectacular, and an 8-win season is within reach – something that might have seemed a pipe dream  just two years ago.
  • Jeff Tedford’s Cal team is its usual Jekyll-and-Hyde self. The Bears could not have looked worse for six quarters after taking a 15-14 halftime lead into the locker room at Oregon on Oct. 6. In the next game and a half, Oregon and USC outscored Cal 59-9, and the Bears could do almost nothing right. Then, last Saturday, the Bears went to Salt Lake City and dominated Utah, 34-10.
  • Which Cal team will show up in the Rose Bowl Saturday?
  • The answer to that question will probably be decided in part by just how much UCLA is affected by its utterly embarrassing performance in a 48-12 loss at Arizona last week. Rumblings out of Westwood make it sound like the team is split and that Rick Neuheisel’s continued presence on the sideline is a key to the problems.
  • Of course, falling behind 42-7 to Arizona before halftime – that’s the same Arizona team that entered the game with a 1-5 record and an interim head coach after firing Mike Stoops – and then starting a bench-clearing brawl with two seconds to go in the half (yes, starting – Taylor Embree threw the first punch in a melee that ended with six Bruins and four Wildcats suspended) might be a fairly decent sign of a team that’s disinterested in its coach and the rest of its season.
  • If there’s been a bright spot for Oregon State in what’s been a very difficult season, it has to be the development of QB Sean Mannion. He was Pac-12 offensive player of the week last Saturday in the Beavers’ 44-24 whipping of Washington State.
  • Still, the Beavers’ losses to Sacramento State, BYU and UCLA have doomed them to consecutive bowl-free seasons – a difficult blast from the past for those in Corvallis who’ve grown used to post-season football in the past decade.
  • After starting 3-1 and dreaming of a bowl bid, Washington State has fallen back to earth in three straight losses, with the hammering by the Beavers seemingly resigning Wazzu to another losing season.
  • With Jeff Tuel and Marshall Loebbestal, Coach Paul Wulff reminds me of a fantasy football owner has two talented passers whom he can’t decide between – and then the one he picks to start in a given week either underperforms or gets injured.

    Uh oh, looks like no points from my QB this week. Fantasy sucks!

  • Well, Arizona certainly looked like they hooked up to the Juvenation Machine last week, didn’t they? But, at 2-5 (and 1-4 in the conference) the rest of 2012 is just about finding a way to build some sort of momentum going forward. And not every opponent is going to be as baffled about its identity as UCLA.
  • I guess Utah is finding out what playing the big boys every week – and suffering a series of debilitating injuries as you go – is all about. However, hearing calls for Kyle Whittingham’s head (as faint as they may be) is absolutely ridiculous. I fully expect that when Utah gets its bearings (and gets healthy), the Utes will be a factor in the South Division for years to come.
  • Colorado, well … hmm. Not exactly making a statement for how deep the Big 12 has been recently. And if Coach Jon Embree didn’t have enough to worry about, his son – previously mentioned UCLA wideout Taylor Embree – decided punching someone on the football field would be a bright idea. When it gets so bad that you’re tied to the acts of players on another team in your conference then go out and get stomped, 45-2, on your own field two days later, well … that’s 2011 Colorado Football. Here’s Colorado’s highlight from October: Cliff Harris goes 118 mph into a safety on a punt return.
  • Finally, this isn’t a Pac-12 related note. But, it is the best college football-related “separated at birth” I’ve come up with recently:
Boise State QB Kellen Moore

South Park, Colo., youth Jimmy Valmer

For more on Pac-12 football, the advertising industry and other events worthy of a mini-rant, send me a follow request on Twitter: @THrants

Sep 04

Week 1 Musings Around the Pac-12

After what much of the national college football media is seemingly celebrating as a rough opening week for the new Pac-12, here are a few thoughts:

  • There is much handwringing over USC’s second-half performance in a 19-17 win against Minnesota at the Coliseum. The Trojan offense, whether you want to blame scheme or execution (Lane Kiffin had no shame pointing the finger at his players), allowing what will likely be a subpar Golden Gopher defense to hold it to zero second-half points is simply unacceptable.
  • I’ll be seeing bubble screens in my sleep for weeks. Your team would be easy to defend, too, if what seemed like half of the plays were a sideways pass followed by crossed fingers that Robert Woods or Marqise Lee would make a freak athletic play to gain yards.
  • I feel badly for Minnesota’s fans, who are likely hopeful that they may have a decent team this season. I’m guessing by the time the Gophers are 1-6 or 2-7 in late October, they’ll feel otherwise.
  • Kudos to Matt Barkley and Woods (whose Twitter handle seems far from presumptuous after his 17-catch opener) for their record-setting performances. Let’s hope they get a little more help from their coaches and teammates on offense next week in the Pac-12 opener against Utah, also 1-0 after a similarly underwhelming win over Montana State in Norm Chow’s debut as offensive coordinator.
  • The new video board at the Coliseum is, to put it simply, fantastic. A bigger surprise: it actually worked without malfunction for the entire game.

The Coliseum's new videoboard may have been the best part of USC's season-opening win over Minnesota

  • Now if they can only fix the thermometer. It’s been 70 degrees in the Coliseum since at least 1991.
  • If people in L.A. are concerned that the Trojans needed a last-minute Torin Harris interception to hold off the Gophers, what are people in Seattle thinking after UW needed a last-minute Desmond Trufant interception to beat defending FCS champ Eastern Washington, 30-27, in Seattle? The Huskies gave up 473 passing yards to the Eagles. Up next: pass-happy Hawaii, which used a surprising running attack to whip new Pac-12 member Colorado, 34-17, last night.
  • What’s the name of the QB who engineered Eastern Washington’s near upset, you ask? Well, it’s Bo Levi Mitchell, of course. No, really, it is. His nickname: Gunslinger.
  • Oregon’s Chip Kelly is quickly becoming the anti-Pete Carroll. In his time at USC, Carroll’s teams became known for not showing up once or twice a year for apparently inconsequential games, but always showing up on the big stage. USC’s lone loss in the Carroll Era in what one would consider a “big game” came with 19 seconds left in one of the greatest college football games ever played. Kelly’s Ducks, on the other hand laid their latest egg on a big stage in Dallas, being run around, over and through by a well-prepared – and simply faster and more athletic – LSU team. That’s four shots on a big stage, against a big-time opponent with time to prepare for the Ducks “revolutionary” attack. And that’s four losses – the 2009 opener at Boise State, the 2010 Rose Bowl vs. Ohio State, the BCS title game against Auburn and now LSU. And, worse, only the defeat by Auburn in the BCS title game in January avoids the tag of “embarrassing.”
  • According to reports from friend and Oregon alum Aaron Cooper, LSU fans on the scene in Dallas once again lived down to their national image. I can only imagine what it must’ve been like to attend the 2005 Capital One Bowl, when LSU faced Iowa – Hawkeye fans being the worst I’ve ever had to deal with at any college football game, until USC dropped the hammer on them in the 2003 Orange Bowl. I’m happy the world survived the possible meltdown of rancor and stupidity a meeting of those two fan bases could cause.
  • Arizona State’s defense looked predictably vicious in a decimation of FCS team UC Davis. If the Devils can keep from suffering any more injuries – they’ve really been snakebitten – that defense can keep them around against just about every team on their schedule.
  • Uh-oh: Is Oregon State back? And by back, I mean the futile Oregon State we all grew to know during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. An overtime loss to Sacramento State – an FCS rival of none other than UC Davis – does not bode well. Nor does this week’s trip to defending Big-10 champion Wisconsin, which looked lethal in their Thursday night opener against UNLV.
  • Apparently only 31,000 folks showed up at Candlestick Park to watch Cal beat Fresno State on Saturday night. And the AP report circulating about the game almost gleefully pointed out that Fresno fans outnumbered those from across the bay. No word on whether former Bear and Bulldog running back Tracy Slocum (or his bottom bitch) was in the house.
  • Jeff Tuel’s fractured clavicle may spell the end of Paul Wulff’s brief tenure at Wazzu. The Cougars were looking to the junior quarterback to team with stud sophomore receiver Marquess Wilson in an effort to break a 5-32 run the past three seasons. Though WSU predictably hammered Idaho State, the loss of Tuel cannot be understated looking ahead.
  • Speaking of coaches whose tenures may soon be over, UCLA’s defense was overmatched (again) in its opening loss to Houston. Though the Bruin offense had a big day – even with the loss of QB Kevin Prince to a concussion – UCLA’s defense resembled the embarrassing mess it was for much of 2010. And, by embarrassing, I mean watch this. The road to six wins and a bowl berth – likely the bare minimum that would keep Rick Neuheisel on the job in Westwood – just got that much longer.

For more on Pac-12 football, the advertising industry and other events worthy of a mini-rant, send me a follow request on Twitter: @thrants