USC has big problems after embarrassing loss

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Associated Press

Posted on September 8, 2013 at 6:01 PM

Updated Sunday, Sep 8 at 6:02 PM

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Lane Kiffin calls Southern California's offensive plays, and his coaching staff is packed with offensive assistants. The Trojans' roster is loaded with highly recruited talent at the skill positions, including the nation's top receiver and a fleet of elite tailbacks.

So the Trojans' inept offensive performance in their home opener was more than a bit perplexing — and USC's fans let Kiffin know about it all night long.

USC hadn't even finished the first half of its 10-7 loss to Washington State before the Coliseum crowd erupted in boos, particularly incensed by Kiffin's curious play-calling on failed third downs. By the end of the Trojans' first home-opening defeat since 1997, full-throated chants of "Fire Kiffin!" echoed through the historic stadium.

And while the embattled fourth-year coach isn't about to agree with the instructions, he couldn't argue with the sentiment.

"That's not a performance that anybody should have to pay to see," Kiffin said.

USC (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) was knocked out of the AP Top 25 by the Cougars, who held the Trojans to their fewest total yards (193) and single-game yards passing (54) since 1998.

While USC's defense was dominant, Kiffin's offense was shockingly poor. The coach seemed to have little confidence in quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek, who both struggled mightily to execute simple passes while each playing a half.

Kiffin's play-calling ran a gamut from ultra-cautious — USC hasn't completed a 20-yard pass this season — to counter-intuitive. The Trojans did little to showcase the speed and skill of receiver Marqise Lee, who also fumbled a punt.

After just two games, the Trojans' hopes of a rebound season from last year's 7-6 effort are in serious doubt. Speculation about Kiffin's job security isn't confined to the Coliseum stands, even after athletic director Pat Haden's strong vote of confidence in the preseason for a coach he didn't hire.

At least the Trojans weren't pointing fingers after their sixth loss in eight games dating to last season.

"The only thing you've got to know is just stay focused," said Lee, who had seven catches for 27 yards. "One thing I've pushed as a captain is, last year, we broke down as a team, broke down and were really upset at situations in which we had a loss. So this year, the main focus is even though we're a step behind, it's time to move forward."

The trends are daunting, however. The Trojans are just 8-7 since they headed into last fall with the preseason No. 1 ranking after finishing the 2011 campaign with an upset win over Oregon and a 50-0 thrashing of UCLA.

That's just not good enough at a program with USC's sky-high expectations, and Kiffin knows it better than anybody. The Trojans' collapse in the second half of last season seriously hurt his recruiting efforts in the offseason, when several targets chose other schools while rumors about Kiffin's job security mounted.

The recruiting failures have hurt the offensive line, which again looks suspect after struggling for long stretches of last season. That uncertainty appears to be a factor in Kiffin's unusual play-calling strategies, including his decision not to throw an official pass in the third quarter.

It's tough for USC fans to find any logic in Kiffin's selection of cautious passes, slow-developing runs and innumerable bubble screens, which require a time-consuming sideways throw by two quarterbacks with unspectacular zip on their passes.

Meanwhile, USC is getting almost no use out of the incredible downfield speed of Lee and Nelson Agholor, who didn't have a catch against Washington State. Talented tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer are hardly ever noticed by USC's quarterbacks, who have hit those two big targets with just two passes for 11 yards this season.

At least USC's defense has been extremely impressive in its first two games under veteran coordinator Clancy Pendergast. Washington State managed only three points on offense.

"We have faith in the offense," linebacker Devon Kennard said. "We definitely still believe in them, and are going to continue to work. We know they're going to get better and better."

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