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.