Former USC Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Allen, led the charge out of the tunnel, harkening back to the days of old. Black shoes, white socks. Run-oriented teams and strong defenses. The 2013 team showed a similar spirit against Washington St. with Tre Madden running for over 150 yards and the defense holding them to a field goal. Best of all, they did it in the traditional black and white. The comparisons end there.
Since the 2001 regular season, USC has only been held to 7 or fewer points four times. The first time was the 2001 Las Vegas Bowl– Pete Carroll’s first bowl game at USC — finishing 6-10 against Utah. The next time would not happen for another nine years, when USC took a trip up to Corvallis to face Oregon State. It was Lane Kiffin’s first year and he ultimately lost 7-36 in that game. The third time was the infamous 2013 Sun Bowl, where Kiffin’s team lost 7-21. The fourth, Kiffin’s third time in his short tenure, came on September 7, 2013 against Washington State. The trend? They all ended in a loss.
USC, according to the NCAA’s books, had an all-time 57-8-4 record against Washington St. — even after the vacated wins. This would make the ninth loss.
Marqise Lee had career low of 27 receiving yards; even his first career start as a freshman in the 2011 season opener was more productive. Both quarterbacks combined for a measly 54 yards.
To contrast, the defense had been as advertised. After accounting for the safety against Hawaii and the pick six against the Cougars, both of which were the offense’s fault, USC’s defense has been allowing an average of 7 points per game.
The problem for USC’s offense was not a great Cougars defense or special teams. The problem was the game plan.
By halftime the crowd was chanting a deafening “fire Kiffin”. It started up again after the game. It was quieter– but only because the Coliseum had emptied. A chorus of boos filled the gaps.
After the game, Cody Kessler said, “‘The fans booing is them telling us we need to play better and at the end of the day they’re right.’”
He was wrong. The crowd booed on screen plays and runs on third and long. The crowd wanted Kiffin fired for his “bad playcalling”.
The masses insist that Kiffin’s playcalling was terrible. The common argument tends to be, “Too many bubble screens and they don’t work!” The case is a little more complicated than that.
First of all, there were a lot of screen plays, but not all were bubble screens. Secondly, screen passes are not useless. If the critics noticed, the Cougars actually called more screen passes than USC did. They did so to take advantage of the aggressive defensive line and pass rush. Several went for a good gain.
However, USC ran eight screen plays on a night when Kessler and Max Wittek combined for 21 pass attempts– nearly half of all attempted passes. When compared to completions, it looks awful; those eight screen plays accounted for eight of the 11 completions. This came despite a drop-eight look from the Cougars’ defense, rushing only three linemen.
It got worse. There were only two pass attempts between the hash marks; both were thrown by Kessler, and both were incomplete. When looking at it from this perspective, play calling does seem to be an issue. Think about Kiffin’s position for a moment though.
The Trojans played conservatively like he intended. He was trying to break in some new quarterbacks and establish a run game that was sorely lacking. They ran the ball well, despite having an allegedly predictable offense. He also brought back the Wildcat formation that was missing from his pass-heavy offense the past two years. Running more than passing may not be the popular style in college football today, but it brings USC back closer to their roots. With seven scholarship running backs, why not?
As for the screen passes, Kiffin probably had multiple intentions for them: to get the ball into his playmakers’ hands and let them beat the defenders with athleticism or to protect his quarterbacks. Passes toward or down the middle were between multiple defenders and/or dropped. Two resulted in costly interceptions. The pick six was a direct result of pressure from the pass rush. The offensive line might not have been able to handle too many passes at this point.
Furthermore, USC had only three penalties for 19 yards. Remember when people called for Kiffin’s firing because his teams were too undisciplined and had too many penalties? Although none of these reasons excuse discouraging performance, hopefully it at least brought insight on what went wrong and why it may have been.
The situation looks bleak for the rest of the season, but it does not have to be that way. This could this be the one embarrassing upset of the season that plagued many Trojan teams the past decade. Kiffin has the keys to the ailing offense. Perhaps, this time, he will truly make the needed adjustments to turn the team around. That is probably the best the Trojan faithful can hope for until the season draws to a close.