I know, I know, it’s such a knee-jerk thing to say, and normally this is a rhetorical device in which I would set about disproving that this is a knee-jerk thing to say. Instead, I’ll just embrace it. The USC 39-36 loss to Arizona on Saturday was nothing short of an unmitigated disaster.
But really, this whole season has been a disaster for the Trojans. They have been sloppy, penalty-ridden, and yet also ultra-conservative in their approach.
Last season, USC went 10-2 and returned 19 starters from that team, including Matt Barkley, who was thought to be the best quarterback in the country and the most NFL-ready prospect at the position. Wide receivers Marquise Lee and Robert Woods made the best passing combination in the country with Barkley, so Lee’s record for receiving yardage on Saturday isn’t that big a surprise. They also had running back Silas Redd dropped in their laps just before the season because of the Penn State debacle.
But no one expected the mistakes, especially from Barkley. When he’s on, Barkley is still the best quarterback prospect in the upcoming draft. Better than Landry Jones or Geno Smith for sure. But he’s only been on about 65% of the time this season. Mostly, he’s either been treading water (like in the Cal win), having big stats in an oddly close game (Syracuse and Utah) or downright awful (the Stanford loss and the Washington win). But Barkley’s odd year isn’t really the problem. The USC offense is essentially fine. They’re scoring 35 points per game. Any team would take that even iff Kiffin has been more Jeremy Bates than Norm Chow with his strategy, adjustments, and playcalling.
It’s the defense that is truly disappointing. They’re only allowing a mediocre 19.5 points per game, but part of the reason that’s lower than you’d think is because they held lightweights like Cal, Hawai’i, and Colorad to single digits. Without those games, USC is allowing a touchdown more at 25.6 ppg. That’s terrible and would rank them 31 spots lower at 56th in points allowed rather than the 25th they’re ranked now.
The reason? They’re giving up a crap-ton of passing yards. The Trojans currently rank 74th in passing yards allowed at 242.75 passing yards per game. That number is low because of a couple atrocious performances by opposing quarterbacks such as Washington’s Keith Price. The Trojans also allowed 3oo yard passing games to Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib and to Arizona’s Matt Scott. They also got picked apart by Stanford’s Ryan Nunes and allowed Keith Price to go 20 for 28. If not for two interceptions by the incredibly mediocre Price, USC loses the Washington game too.
USC is also the most penalized team in the nation, and it showed Saturday. The Trojans committed 13 penalties for 117 yards. Sadly, this is not unusual for them. And as many Raiders fans as there still are in the greater Los Angeles area who attend USC home games, I’m thinking they’d rather not see that part of the Raider legacy repeated at the Coliseum.
In sum, Kiffin’s one specialty, the offense, is essentially fine even by USC standards. However, Kiffin was hired to run the entire program and only two of the four areas that matter for coaches are on track: the offense and recruiting. The defense and team discipline are underwhelming at best.
One may argue that this team is not only a victime of outsized expectations but also is just now feeling the effects of the NCAA sanctions for the Reggie Bush fiasco. Okay fine, which is why Kiffin probably won’t be fired at season’s end. The Trojans are still going to make a bowl and probably finish over .500. Eventually the sanctions will end, and Kiffin has been good about stocking the team with top-shelf talent despite having fewer scholarships.
However, the second those sanctions end, USC will no longer be able to pull the crap they did on Saturday. Suddenly bad defense, penalties, and a habit of losing randomly is part of the hallmark of the Pete Carroll Era. Once Matt Leinart graduated, USC was never the same. The John David Booty, Mark Sanchez, and early Matt Barkley ears were marked by games just like Saturday against Arizona. The only difference was USC only had that happen once or maybe twice a year and Carroll managed to win a national title before that (two if you’re a homer and count the AP national title).
Kiffin hasn’t done that, so an impression of post-Leinart Pete Carroll isn’t going to get it done in one of the biggest football programs in college football. Especially not when the current athletic director is not the one who hired Lane Kiffin.
As Phillips texted me on Saturday: “Kiffin may be the guy to get the team through the sanctions, but unless he starts learning from his mistakes, he won’t be there after.”
/immediately becomes the most popular post on Tennessee message boards.
/McD immediately gets hired to replace T.J. Symers as head USC-baiter in Los Angeles, as opposed to Phillips, who is the head USC-bater.