USC Football: Breaking Down the Trojans' Offensive Issues

Amy LamareSenior Analyst IOctober 19, 2012

PALO ALTO, CA - OCTOBER 09:  USC Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin speaks with side judge Mike Weseloh during their loss to the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on October 9, 2010 in Palo Alto, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Look, it’s no longer breaking news, I realize this. However, USC’s offense so far this season is strange. Very, very strange. Consider the cast of characters on the Trojan offense.  

Matt Barkley entered the season as the top Heisman contender and one of the best college quarterbacks in the nation.

The Trojans boast two of the best wide receivers in the country in Robert Woods and Marqise Lee.

Curtis McNeal and Silas Redd, both 1,000-yard running backs, have been burning up the yardage in recent weeks. 

Tight ends Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer are huge and athletic and players that could have written their ticket for any school in the country when USC was hit with sanctions. 

Khaled Holmes is the best center in the nation and arguably the anchor of the Trojan offense.

With the exception of transfer Redd, any of these aforementioned athletes could have abandoned USC. But they didn’t, and that almost makes the ineffectualness of the offense even stranger.  

Clearly, preseason expectations for USC were off the charts—and why wouldn’t they be? The Trojans finished 2011 strong at 11-2 with convincing victories over Notre Dame, Washington, Oregon and UCLA to end the season. Their only late season loss was the triple overtime heart-breaker to Stanford—which remains the greatest game I’ve seen in person, for the record.

So what happened?

Is the sum of this offense less than its individual parts? That certainly seems possible, though nearly the exact same cast of characters played nearly flawlessly in the latter half of the 2011 season.

Lane Kiffin has been lauded as an offensive genius. That doesn’t seem to be the case this season.  As I mentioned earlier in the week, he’s playing classic Tressel-ball—eking out victories by controlling the line of scrimmage and the clock and relying on his defense. And there’s nothing essentially wrong with that, but it isn’t the offensive firestorm USC fans signed on for or expected this season.

It could be that Kiffin is a genius of another sort—a strategic genius. What if, as my friends at Reign of Troy have posited, is that Kiffin’s master plan is to protect Barkley and preserve his limited roster of players.

I happen to hope that is the case and starting next week against RichRod’s Arizona Wildcats, Trojan fans start to see some of the offensive firepower they crave so much.

It is Matt Barkley’s senior season; shouldn’t he be allowed to air it out?

Is there a reason Kiffin’s play-calling has so reined in this formerly prolific QB? Is Matt Barkley nursing a secret shoulder, arm or hand injury? Is Kiffin being a brat? He’s well known for downplaying players when they are in his proverbial dog house. Is that what is going on here?

That is a lot of questions that I would sincerely like answered. Where is the Matt Barkley the Trojan Nation knows and loves? He was a near shoe-in for the Heisman. Now, only six powerful performances will get him back in the game.

It is possible—after all Carson Palmer did it a decade ago—but, given the Trojans’ offense to date, and coupled with Kiffin’s conservative play-calling it seems unlikely.

Barkley is currently fourth in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game and 38th nationally—that doesn’t exactly get you an invite to New York City in December. Overall, the Trojans are sixth in the Pac-12 in passing yards per game and seventh overall in total yards.

Digest that for a moment, Trojan fans. USC is not even in the top half of the conference in these categories.

What is going on? Is it a depth issue? Is it a team chemistry issue?

As the USC offense has become more and more focused on the run, the overall offensive output has suffered and declined.  Consider the Utah game, where the Trojans focused heavily on the run in the third quarter until USC shut down the Utes with that gorgeous 83-yard pass to Lee in the fourth quarter.

Then last week at Washington, USC more or less refused the throw the ball and Barkley went 10-of-20. Twenty passes thrown in the entire game—that is bizarre! Even when the running game was shut down in the second half, Kiffin refused to go to the passing game—leaving Woods and Lee pretty much idling on the sidelines, Barkley not living up to his full potential, and USC going scoreless in the entire second half of the game.  

Kiffin is mercurial and hard to read, but for a coach that supposedly supports his QB, this style of play has all but ended Barkley’s Heisman campaign. Shouldn’t Kiffin be calling plays that put Barkley on the national radar again?

It is doubtful there will be much change in play-calling this week versus Colorado. Let’s face it, the Buffaloes are woeful. I just wonder if (and hope that) Kiffin has something up his sleeve for the last five games of this season against Arizona, Oregon, ASU, UCLA and Notre Dame.

I hope the coming weeks have Matt Barkley airing it out to Woods and Lee and putting on a show not just for the hometown crowd, but for the whole country, who has largely written the Trojans off.

While, Kiffin’s current strategy has left the Trojans 5-1 as they face their toughest opponents, I maintain that it is not a strategy that can beat teams like Arizona, Oregon and Notre Dame. Something has to change and evolve.