Lane Kiffin’s problem against Arizona State wasn’t play calling.
It wasn’t even the turnovers that his best players coughed up.
Or how the Trojans usually stiff defense gave up 28 points in the third quarter alone.
It was a problem that seems to plague Kiffin where ever he goes.
He just can’t make it work.
At a certain point in sports, any given coach or player either has it or they don’t. What differentiates the Hall of Fame player and the washout who you never heard of often isn’t talent or skill. It’s circumstance. It’s some calculation in the universe deciding that one has “It” while the other does not.
The message was clear. On a night when Lane Kiffin probably did his best job of calling plays all season, everything that could go wrong did go wrong.
Marqise Lee has a history of drops, but to drop that catch, with miles of space and a sure fire touchdown in front of him, when USC could have taken control of the game? That was the universe talking.
Tre Madden is a great running back, but to fumble like that, running into his own man with his knee a millisecond away from being down, when the Trojans were driving to close out the half strong? That was the universe talking.
Kessler’s pick six could not have come at a worse time. It was the straw that broke the defense’s back after a demoralizing 74-yard Sun Devil touchdown. And the universe shouted louder than the Tempe crowd roared as every defensive breakdown and every missed tackle dragged the Trojans closer and closer to rock bottom.
They hit rock bottom when Marqise Lee went down, writhing in pain, holding his knee, with players and coaches around him giving indication of just what a huge loss he was for the Trojans. And as Hayes Pullard, Dion Bailey, and Su’a Cravens all came up dinged as the night wore on, it became increasingly clear that the NCAA got their wish. USC is crippled.
Part of that is Kiffin’s fault. This team was not prepared well enough. Not necessarily in this past week, but in the weeks before. Lacking an offensive identity for too long, the Trojans are still ironing out details that should have been settled weeks ago. The uncertainty on offense implanted a mentality in the defense that if they gave up any points the game would be lost, so when they finally ran into an offense that found the key to scoring on them they had no way to cope and gave up a whopping 62 points.
There were things at play, however, that were out of Kiffin’s control. Having only 56 scholarship players available to travel to Tempe was a huge factor as the Trojan’s depth was sorely tested. The defense was gassed. The offense was thinned. Kiffin didn’t pop the ball out of Lee’s or Madden’s grip. Kiffin didn’t leave Sun Devil wide receivers wide open in the middle of the field. Kiffin didn’t throw an interception or miss a block.
Never were the NCAA sanctions more apparent. Those sanctions weren’t Kiffin’s fault either.
But Kiffin had the near-impossible task of navigating them while simultaneously shouldering the impossible task of following one of the great head coaches in NCAA history.
He was set up to fail from the start. And fail he did.
USC lost seven of their last 11 games under Kiffin. Yet Kiffin survived the offseason when it would have been justified to fire him following the mind-numbing 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Rose Bowl, probably because he’d done such a good job of recruiting under difficult circumstances. He avoided the ax after the head-shaking, boo-inducing loss to Washington State a couple weeks ago, mostly because the defense was so dominant and the offense was still a work in progress.
The funny thing about all this is that Kiffin didn’t survive the one loss that was least about him. It was about sanctions, injuries, turnovers and depth.
But the universe spoke — no matter what Kiffin did right, things would always go horribly wrong.
So Kiffin had to go. It was inevitable.