Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

USC Football: Lane Kiffin Sealing His Fate, Not Cementing His Legacy


After coaching a team that was ranked No. 1 in the preseason to a 7-6 record in 2012, Lane Kiffin entered 2013 amid heavy scrutiny and with a bullseye on his back, sitting atop Athlon Sports’ list of coaches on the hot seat for 2013.

Prior to the season, Kiffin appeared to be headed in the right direction when he relieved his father and former defensive coordinator, Monte Kiffin, of his duties.

It was a move many USC Trojan fans had been clamoring for as Monte wasn’t able to effectively adjust his defensive scheme to the college game.

As for the criticism Lane received in response to his calling of the offensive plays and tendency to consume himself with his play sheet, no change would be made there.

At Pac-12 media day in July, Lane answered his critics’ questions and confirmed that he would continue calling the plays in 2013.

Yes, when the Trojans were on their way to an 11-2 record in 2011, Lane was calling plays and didn’t face the criticism for it that he now does.  An 11-2 record will afford you a certain amount of protection from scrutiny.

Entering a season with BCS Championship aspirations only to finish 7-6, unranked, and generating one touchdown in a home loss to the Washington State Cougars, will not protect you from that same scrutiny, nor should it.

Lane has shown he is capable of putting together a successful game plan — see the 2011 road victories in Oregon and Notre Dame.  While those wins weren’t all Lane, they are examples of him being able to keep opposing defenses guessing and off balance.

Being someone who is, or was, widely considered an elite offensive mind, it is puzzling to see the Trojans struggle on offense as much as they have.

The recent lackluster offensive performances can perhaps be attributed to how Lane handled the quarterback competition, which appears to have backfired, blown up in his face, and has potential to get worse.

On Monday afternoon, Kiffin once and for all announced a starting quarterback moving forward, giving Cody Kessler the nod over Max Wittek.  Kessler has of course already started both of the Trojans’ games thus far but Lane appeared reluctant to anoint him the full-time starter.

Kessler certainly didn’t help himself with underwhelming play in four quarters worth of action.  Though Lane didn’t exactly provide a helping hand with the vanilla and predictable play calling.

If Kessler is taking the field as the quarterback at USC, he needs to be prepared, trusted, and able to complete more than just bubble screens and short hitches. Ditto for Wittek.

The way the situation unfolded has backed Kiffin into a corner in which he may never come out of.

Was his final decision based on Kessler earning it?  Is it Kessler because he’s been the lone starter two games into the season?

Or after the abysmal loss to the Cougars did Lane realize he could no longer continue to stall and buy time hoping Wittek would eventually step forward?

Let’s not forget Wittek began this season with two games of starting experience already under his belt.

Naturally, you would believe he’d have a leg up on Kessler in the battle to take the snaps under center this season, but he was never able to overtake Kessler — no matter how much Kiffin may have wanted him to.

Waiting to see how Kessler would respond in a real game setting against Hawaii was a respectable strategy.  But if Kessler was playing well enough to earn consecutive starts, why not make the announcement prior to Monday?

What more could Wittek have shown in his fourth game compared to his first three?  The evidence points to much of the same — continued struggles.

One Pete Carroll, who safe to say experienced a palpable level of success at USC, firmly believed in naming a starter for leadership sake and his track record speaks for itself.

Best case scenario for Lane and the Trojans is Kessler takes the lead and the team begins to rattle off victories.

Even if this does come to fruition, the Trojans have already shot themselves in the foot by losing a game that they shouldn’t have, and you can be sure the “what took Kiffin so long” questions will surface.

Worst case scenario, Kessler and the offense continue to struggle throughout the season, which could, and arguably should, result in Kiffin losing his job.

As unfair as it may seem, Kiffin has inflicted this on himself.  As the head coach, you’re held responsible for your team’s preparation, play, and results.

Also serving as the de facto offensive coordinator, you’re held accountable for a struggling offense that absolutely should not be sputtering like the Trojans are.

Lane shouldn’t believe he’s on the hot seat.  He should feel like the ground under him is scalding, with winning providing the only relief.

If the boos unleashed on Lane were any indication of what may lie ahead if the Trojans pile up losses, he may wish he never returned to the place he once experienced so much success at.

Dick's Sporting Goods presents "Hell Week":

Tags: Cody Kessler Football Lane Kiffin Max Wittek Pete Carroll USC Trojans

  • Charles G.

    The questions I have are, was the offensive success in 2011 due to a combination of talent and teams not really being prepared for what was coming?

    Now that they have had time to really study and key onto what Kiffin’s game is have they made the necessary adjustments to counter and he hasn’t adjusted to that?

    Also, was the his success as an assistant due more to Sark? It was Sark that Al Davis wanted in the first place. We haven’t been able to see what Kiffin is fully capable of until now because he hasn’t stayed in one place long enough – until now.

    • http://fansided.com/ Michael Castillo

      I think it’s safe to say that Sark had a huge impact in retrospect, as there wasn’t a drop off in play calling when Kiffin left for Oakland. Can you imagine how good this team could be if Sark was still the OC? The offense would be dynamic like it should be.

      As for 2011, I think it was a combination of things. I think Kiffin was trusting of his players and their talent, but he was also comfortable with the offensive line. With Matt Kalil at left tackle, he could afford to call five-step drops without worrying about Barkley getting Barr’d. Last year, with the same playmaking talent but without Kalil, Kiffin dialed the plays and was conservative for a bunch of games. He really only opened it up completely when he felt threatened, which was basically just the Oregon game.

      And of course, the super-conservative offense is extremely predictable and that’s tape that’s easy to read.

      • Charles G.

        Agreed, except in the case of Matt Kalil. A tremendous player to replace but in 2012 Kiffin still had 4 of the 5 starters returning. If there was concern about the left tackle position there are ways to help the LT out. Go to 3 and 5 step drops. Run the ball aggressively and give play action to slow the rush. Keep a tight end in to help. Chip the end or OLB with a back out of the backfield. Slide the protection that way.

        It all comes back that Kiffin isn’t great at game planning and breaking down a defense.

        • PenguinOfTroy

          Kalil definitely made things much easier for Kiffin. I just can’t believe there’s been this much of a drop off, even considering Kalil’s absence. It’s like Kiffin has lost his mojo. We saw the beginning of that last season without the Matt Barkley safety blanket, but I never expected it would be this bad.
          More and more it looks like 2011 was a fluke in both play calling and results. And that just sucks.

          • http://fansided.com/ Michael Castillo

            It may have been a fluke, but that shouldn’t take anything away from that team. They were extremely well coached and poised the last half of the year and they deserve all of the praise they get. But you’re right. It looks like we’re being proved wrong about the level of Kiffin in the sense that 2011 was an outlier.

          • Charles G.

            The biggest difference that I notice between 2011 and the time since then is there was balance. I’m not just talking about run and pass balance, I’m talking about balance in sharing the ball.

            The open receiver was going to get the ball. In 2012 it seemed as if the entire centered around getting the ball to Lee whether he was open or not. Receivers are running open down the field and there was no intent to even look in their direction. He did have an All-American receiver on the other side of the field.

          • Matthew Moreno

            That’s also a little bit of an indictment on Barkley. Maybe Kiffin was in his ear about making a concerted effort to get Lee the ball but as a four year starter, Barkely should have been able to make the right read and go through his progressions.

            Of course having time to do that ties to is related to the offensive line providing adequate protection.

            Ultimately Kiffin needs to do a better job of asessing what’s taking place on the field and adjust/game plan accordingly

    • Matthew Moreno

      I think the early success in 2011 could be attributed to opponents not knowing what to expect.

      However, as the season progressed, USC still remained a well-oiled machine on offense and continued to win; despite the fact their opponents had more film and tendencies to study

  • Donna Littrell

    Fight On Lane!

  • disqus_5mzWKSTg3O

    It amazes me how Kiffin is suddenly “excited”about Kessler starting.
    We saw nothing in these first 2 games that made one QB stand out from the other, so why pick a starter, now (wasnt the whole point of Kiffin playing 2 QBs was to let the games decide the starter)????

    Must have been something Haden said to Kiffin durning their regular in-season Sunday meeting. Hmmm