USC Football: Fans’ Perception, Not Kiffin’s Play Calling, Is The Real Problem

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Sep 22, 2012; Anaheim, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans coach Lane Kiffin (center), quarterback Matt Barkley (left) and center Abe Markowitz (50) react during the game against the California Golden Bears at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. USC defeated California 27-9. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee/Image of Sport-US PRESSWIRE

Much ado has been made about the University of Southern California Trojans & head coach Lane Kiffin’s play-calling lately. If you are a fan of the Trojans with a Twitter account, you’ve undoubtedly seen the apoplectic meltdowns suffered by Trojan fans during the games. The comments directed at the Trojans vary from fan to fan. It’s usually an amalgamation of Kiffin’s inabilities combined with the reasons he is an idiot for not giving that job to someone “more qualified.” Really, if you look hard enough on Twitter, you can find just about every criticism in the book being lobbed at Kiffin.

The most common theme among the criticisms has to be Kiffin’s play-calling. By and large, the majority of the complaints you hear from fans are some variation of “Kiffin’s play-calling sucks.” If you couple those concerns with the genuine belief from Trojan fans that Kiffin is going to drive SC straight into the ground, you’ll generally come away from every game thinking USC is the worst team in the country. The expectations of the fans are almost insane.

Now, to be fair, USC generated a lot of this hype before the season began. Barkley’s “Unfinished Business” press conference pretty much set a target on the Trojans’ back from the moment the speech ended. Additionally, Matt has vocally expressed desire to win the Heisman, furthering the expectations placed on USC. When all of those things were added to last year’s 10-2 season capped with a defeat of Oregon in Eugene, the expectations of Trojan fans were almost outlandish from the outset.

I sometimes wonder if college fans have forgotten how difficult an undefeated season can be when you consider all factors. I don’t have the stats in front of me and this article isn’t about going undefeated so I am not going to research them, but I can’t recall a season in recent memory where there were more than three undefeated teams at the end of the season. I think 2004 has the largest amount of controversy with USC, Utah, and Auburn going undefeated. While there have been other controversies, I don’t believe there have been more than three.

Let’s assume for a moment that three undefeated teams at season’s end is normal. That means there is a 2.5% chance a team will go undefeated in college football. For the record, I rounded down to 120 FBS teams since that number has fluctuated. 3 out of 120 teams seem fair for the purposes of this argument. The odds aren’t great. The odds significantly decrease when you factor in injuries over the course of a season and the fact that USC is already down 10 scholarship players because of sanctions. It’s a damn difficult task.

This brings us back to the events that changed USC’s initial plans. You see, after Khaled Holmes went down, USC was forced to turn to Cyrus Hobbi in the Stanford game. Hobbi, a true freshman, had one of the poorest games of his life and USC was defeated in Palo Alto. Now, the coaching staff won’t blame Hobbi, but I have no problems pointing out that much of the blame rests with him. Holmes defended Hobbi to the media, but the reality is that his inability to cover his assignment in USC’s zone-blocking scheme made it impossible for anyone else to do their job. As such, USC was forced to give Hobbi help and this created mismatches in the other gaps. It wouldn’t have mattered if USC had Peyton Manning playing QB in Palo Alto, the Trojans couldn’t block their assigned gaps and an implosion ensued.

With the Trojans reeling from the physical beatdown in Palo Alto, Kiffin et al. had to devise a different strategy that would work with the pieces available to them. The running game was much maligned and the offensive line couldn’t give Barkley the protection he needed. Kiffin realized that the Trojans would be in much worse shape if they didn’t improve certain aspects of the offense. If USC didn’t establish the run game, it wouldn’t matter who was protecting Barkley. So, Kiffin & his staff came up with a simple plan for Cal that would set them up for the greatest chance of long-term success. They were going to run the ball like forward passes were illegal & keep Barkley upright.

In the 3 games prior to Cal, a USC RB had only rushed for 100 yards once when Silas Redd had 107 against Syracuse. Even though USC had 258 yards rushing against Syracuse, they accounted for 0 TD’s in the rushing game and only had 3 on the season. As a matter of fact, USC only rushed for 26 yards against Stanford and 81 against Hawaii. USC’s run:pass ratio was 84:112 & they were averaging only 4.3 yards-per-attempt.

Trojan fans might want to cover their eyes if they think Kiffin is the problem, because what’s next might put a huge hole in their play-calling argument. Since the Stanford game, USC’s run:pass ratio has completely inverted. It is now 112:84 and the Trojans are averaging 5.6 yards-per-attempt. How about Silas Redd? Well, since his rough start, Redd has rushed for over 150 yards in two of those games. While he only rushed for 77 in the game against Utah, he did manage to get 75 yards while the Trojans managed 129 yards as a team.

How about Matt Barkley? Well, after being sacked 6 times in September, he has only been sacked twice since. USC’s offensive line responded to the Stanford game by not surrendering a single sack in the game against Cal. The Trojans have also installed a power running game while keeping Barkley upright. Whether or not you choose to believe me, the game plan at Cal was exactly that and it has worked very well for the Trojans moving forward.

This is where some might point to USC’s “near collapse” against Washington on Saturday. Here again, the problem wasn’t with the play-calling. I suppose now would be as good of a time as any to add my little caveat. No coach will ever call plays correctly 100% of the time. If all you’re looking for is the negative, I assure you, you will find it. The reality of the situation is that USC wanted to establish ball control. They held Washington to under 300 yards of total offense, forced 4 turnovers on defense, and rushed for over 200 yards as a team. Trojan fans would have you believe that they were about to lose to Memphis.

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  • http://fansided.com/ Michael Castillo

    I definitely think that there’s some middle ground here. I think Kiffin’s rationale makes sense, but that doesn’t mean its not risky. Yes, winning every game is more important that winning with style, but at some point points will need to be scored and style points will need to be won.

    • Rick Afshar

      Once again, Oliver, Nice job of sucking up to Kiffin and Barkley by throwing one player under the bus. So what are saying is that everyone else played a perfect game against Stanford???!!!! That is amazing. I don’t know how much football you actually played. Your article and analogies are so off base it’s not even funny. If you had a clue you would know that Football is a team sport and “A” player or person doesn’t lose or win a football game. So, your whole logic and premise is based on a completely false foundation to start with. The team played badly and Stanford played well. For you to write articles and offer up opinions, like this, requires some basic understanding of football, offensive line, Center and more importantly the concept of a team and how it functions. Your words don’t demonstrate any knowledge and therefore your article lacks credible journalistic integrity. I agree with Patrick. This is a bunch of none-sense. Oliver, you should write about other things. Preferably things that you know at least a little bit about.

  • hawaiiguy

    I beg to differ, fans should be really concerned when the huskies defense shuts USC out for 42+ minutes on offense. Thats all fine and good we won, but I am in agreement with most of the fans I think when you can’t score on the UW defense and we have Oregon, Arizona St, Arizona coming up, who are all playing lights out on offense. Do we expect to just turn on the sync to be able to match these teams point for point? I think its a very bad move not to have this team in sync at this point of the season, if we have another loss due to inconsistent offensive play, it will all come down on coach K and I think it will be deserved. Its also not fair that he seems to be protecting Matt, he chose to come back for 2 reasons, NC, Heisman, both of those are in serious doubt because the play calling has not given this team a chance to find their groove. Can it happen they do find it, most certainly, will it happen, I think waiting until Colorado or Arizona to find out is pretty risky, if not stupid.

  • hawaiiguy

    Also in the Washington game, if we didn’t get the turnovers in the 2nd half, chances are we lose that game. Thats the gamble a coach at Wyoming can take, not USC. If they lost by 1 point and didn’t score in 42+ minutes we would be the laughing stock of the PAC, as it sits we are overrated thats for certain at this point, based on our play, not ability or character. Love my trojans, but playing smart is kinda looking like playing scared.

  • long time sc fan

    I don’t sense Kiffin and Matt are on the same page right now. With PC you could see the head coach exude confidence and excitement to his players as they ran off the field. I don’t see that with Kiffin. Kiffin has a history of strange calls like last years repeated 2-pt PATs that he tried over and over again — unsuccessfully. He gets in this hole in his thinking and can’t seem to get out. Also, who are the SC guys working the press box above like norm chow used to do so well? Can’t they see weak spots in the defense and exploit them?

  • http://www.facebook.com/patrick.corbett3 Patrick Corbett

    this whole article is just a bunch of BS excuse making. If players like hobbi blew their assignments, that is kiffins fault. He is the one coaching them. right now, it is more important to score 65 pts a game, to move up in the polls. stop being a coward the entire team is not going to go down with injuries. Why are we runnig 70% of the time now with a heisman trophy candidate QB?? does that make any sense at all??
    yes we have some big games coming up…however, due to the loss at STanford they don’t mean much anymore as the season is over. Just a waste of space on the internet.

  • Trojan

    With all due respect Oliver Twist, if this is what you really believe then you don’t know much about football. This is all you need to know in assessing overall coaching: highest in penalties, players sitting on the bench in defeat at Stanford before the game was even over, playing worse in the second half of almost every game this season, bad turnover margin.etc. It really has nothing to do with the number of losses. I think a lot of fans could handle that if the players were playing to their potential. We should have won every game and didn’t but the real issue is the easy games we did win looked like crap too. This is the beginning of the end I’m afraid. I just hope it doesn’t stretch out too long and ruin the momentum we’ve built in the last 10 years.