Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The fundamental job of a head football coach is to win games and put butts in seats. Lane Kiffin didn’t do either on Saturday night in the Coliseum.
Kiffin’s Trojans, coming off a lackluster, yet mixed bag performance in Week 1 vs. Hawaii, turned in the most inept offensive performance in recent memory, which says something given how last year’s Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech played out.
Armed with the nation’s top receiver, a talented stable of backs, a pair of dynamic tight ends and a play chart larger than a lunch menu at The Cheesecake Factory, Kiffin punted his offensive game plan and opted to play not to lose.
“The plan was if we were able to hold up on defense to make sure we didn’t screw up on offense,” Kiffin told reporters.
And much to the chagrin of Kiffin and the ire of fans, the offense was screwed up.
Quarterbacks Cody Kessler and Max Wittek each played a half, and they combined for just 54 yards passing. How’s that possible? Well, exactly zero of their 21 recorded pass attempts were thrown farther than 10 yards downfield, and the longest pass play gained eight yards.
Kiffin, who brazenly told the masses on Media Day that he’d be the Trojans’ play caller in 2013, repeatedly dialed up a small portion of his play chart as if Washington State would suddenly contract amnesia.
The game began with an incomplete out pass to the left and it was downhill from there. Without confidence in his quarterbacks, especially Cody Kessler, Kiffin refused to open up the offense in any way.
A repeated diet of bubble screens, three-yard hitches, out patterns and Tre Madden blasts to the right side allowed the Washington State defense to crowd the box, play corners in press coverage, and be an overall step ahead, on every play.
Thanks to a stellar defensive effort that kept the Cougars out of the endzone and limited them to 0.3 yards per carry, the game wasn’t the rout that it easily could have been.
Instead, USC and Washington State were in such a battle of futility that a number of fans were pouring out of the stands in the fourth quarter…with the game still knotted at 7. Others booed mercilessly at every failed USC attempt to gain yardage by means of a screen pass.
Following Andrew Furney’s 41-yard go-ahead field goal with 3:03 left in the game for the Cougars, those boos turned into words.
“Fire Kiffin! Fire Kiffin!” rained down the slopes of the Coliseum bowl in the final moments of USC’s first home opener loss since 1997.
After the shaking of Mike Leach’s hand, Kiffin sprinted from midfield to the locker room with the LAPD struggling to keep up with him as fans around the tunnel yelled at and even waved obscene gestures at the head coach.
That anger has merit, and following Saturday night’s effort, put a ton of weight upon the shoulders of athletic director Pat Haden.
Back in July, Haden was part of a semi-viral video in which he openly addressed and denied the existence of a hot seat for Kiffin. Haden, whom Kiffin predates, went all-in on the offensive guru, echoing the 150% backing he gave him following last year’s loss to UCLA.
“To really improve on offensive, we’ll need to have much fewer turnovers and convert more on third downs,” said Haden in the video when giving his assessment of the 2013 team.
Right on cue Saturday night against Washington State, the Cougars scored their only touchdown on a pick six from Cody Kessler and the Trojans were 3 for 13 on third downs and didn’t convert a single one in the first half.
Add that to a string of sour performances, an offense that is rapidly regressing in confidence and a fan base quickly unifying on their calls for Kiffin’s head, Haden’s suddenly in a moment of truth.
This Trojan team has all of the talent in the world and has the potential to go as far they want to go, but unless they undergo a rapid reversal of attitude, mindset and overall preparation, the season could get out of hand quickly with trips to Arizona State and Notre Dame looming.
So a change must be made.
Either Haden sticks to his guns and continues to ride Kiffin out and put internal pressure on him to pick a quarterback and trust his players, or he makes the decision the fans want, going back on his word and making his video look like even more of a PR stunt.
It’s a tough call. Not just for the perception of Haden, but for the entire discourse.
Midseason coaching changes just don’t happen in college football. They’re not practical.
But with USC having 11 games remaining on their schedule and a team that is talented yet misguided, a coaching change could potentially have plenty of positive impact, as they do in other sports, if Haden opted to do so. He’d just have to decide between Ed Orgeron or Clancy Pendergast as an interim. Either of which would bear the risk of drawing attention away from their focus unit on defense.
So here we are, waiting to see when and if a change comes to USC football, either internally or externally, as plutonium and uranium start to flirt.
How catastrophic or explosive the team becomes, is anyone’s guess.
And it’s amazing what can happen so quickly. Just 20 months ago, the Trojans were America’s It team, Lane Kiffin was a cult hero and a 50-0 win over UCLA prompted reports of Rick Neuheisel’s firing. Now, the Trojans are spiraling out of control and Kiffin faces the pressure of a similar fate, following a similar lackluster performance, with a guy named Tre Madden at running back.
Who saw any of that coming 20 months ago?