2012 USC Trojans: Matt Barkley and the Season's 6 Biggest Disappointments
Disappointment is defined as a failure to meet expectations.
Perhaps this season’s expectations were a bit overly inflated.
Maybe they were housing-market inflated.
After all, USC remains in the midst of its “timeout” as ordered by ex-AD of the U, the late Paul Dee. The Trojans are handicapped with 10 fewer scholarships per year and just finished their two year bowl ban.
But thanks to last year's win at Oregon, as well as an absolute annihilation of UCLA, USC found itself back in the good graces of the media, darlings of the dance once more.
Yes, USC began the season ranked #1 with national title hopes and crystal football trophy dreams.
Matt Barkley and company's list of "unfinished business" included invitations to New York City's Marriott Marquis for December 8th's Heisman Ceremony as well as Miami's Sun Life Stadium for January 7th's BCS title game.
Nine games into the season and the Trojans are a disastrous 6-3. They are one loss away from oblivion. In fact, no pre-season #1 has fallen further than #16 since 1964.
USC has three games remaining on it's regular season schedule; each posing a stout challenge.
Arizona State has the #7 ranked pass defense in the country. Notre Dame is undefeated, and along with Alabama, leads the nation in numerous defensive categories.
And UCLA, currently in the driver seat for the PAC-12 South title, boasts the 11th ranked offense in the nation and is ranked ahead of the Trojans for the first time in over a decade.
This season has all the elements of an epic disaster movie.
Here is a breakdown of the 6 biggest letdowns of the Trojan's season thus far.
1. Lane Kiffin Is Who We Thought He Was
Lane Kiffin is a talented coach, raised by one of the most brilliant football minds in football history.
But Lane’s antics have historically displayed an immaturity that demonstrates he is not yet ready to take his place as an elite coach.
He is a project, still in its developmental phase. The maturation process takes time. And time is not on Lane’s side.
Expectations are great at USC.
The Trojan faithful, tortured with mediocrity during the '90s, took a hit of greatness at the turn of the century. They are now addicted to the "win now" drug.
Rose Bowls are recurrent, BCS championships are preferred, anything less is unacceptable.
In some ways, Lane is beyond his years.
Kiffin’s history as SC’s offensive coordinator and recruiting coordinator under Pete Carroll demonstrated his ability to hang crooked numbers on a scoreboard and bring in top talent.
More recently, Lane is to be commended for his plan to counter the loss of scholarships that currently handicap the Trojans’ depth.
In other ways, he still has much to learn.
Lane is still an offensive coordinator wearing a head coach’s visor.
His play calling has been under fire since his arrival in 2010. It is a mystery how USC is consistently blessed with some of the best talent in the country, yet they find a way to disappoint.
It seems as though his arrogance prevents him from kicking field goals to put precious points on the board, choosing instead to go for it on 4th down situations, where he has been successful only 50% of the time.
We are still not sure what possessed him to call an end around play with Marquis Lee on 4th and 2 in the loss at Arizona. We won't even mention his directing Barkley to not spike the ball during SC's final failed drive of that same game.
He has been blessed with a Heisman-caliber gun at QB and a full clip of play-makers, yet the offense has been unimaginative and one dimensional.
USC currently ranks 25th in the nation in total offense, and, most disgustingly, 75th in rushing offense.
In addition, Lane appears clueless when it comes to the vital role defense plays in a football game.
With all the talent USC possesses on the defensive side of the ball, there is no excuse for them to go down in history as one of the most porous defenses in USC history.
Rather than take responsibility for the defense's woes, Lane seems to be of the opinion that it is his job to simply outscore everyone. He loses to Oregon 62-51 and states the game, “comes down to three offensive possessions"? Pay no attention to the 62 all-white elephants with reflective helmets stampeding the room.
He has yet to prove that he is capable of winning big games.
Lane is a career 1-4 versus top 10 teams. (That record could be 0-5 if Oregon hadn’t missed a 37 yard field goal to tie the game as time expired in last season’s upset at Autzen. Don’t forget about SC’s collapse as they held a commanding 38-14 lead with time winding down in the 3rd quarter.)
Most importantly, USC’s team is struggling with the little things. The little things always add up to big things. And big things prevent teams from being champions.
This year, headlines include: discussions of SC’s lack of discipline on the field, missed assignments, missed tackles, penalties, turnovers, as well as the ridiculous shenanigans of players changing jersey numbers mid-game, and the latest, “deflate-gate.”
Given experience, time, and a dose of maturity, Lane could develop into one of the game’s elite coaches.
However, at this stage, Lane Kiffin will face constant comparisons to the success of Pete Carroll.
The bar at Southern Cal. has been raised.
His failure to deliver a national title or consistent PAC-12 South titles will bring nothing but disappointment and ultimately his early departure.
Monte Kiffin's Defense Is Exhausted
Trojan fans have a right to be confused and upset with their defense's performance thus far.
They are accustomed to a unit that gets stronger as the season wears on. Pete Carroll’s teams were religiously undefeated in November.
To the naked eye, USC’s defensive unit seems to have caught a sudden degenerative illness. Its back-to-back, school record-breaking performances against Arizona and Oregon have the general public baffled.
The Trojan faithful are up in arms, calling for the head of Monte Kiffin, as the legendary coach has become the popular scapegoat for the poor performance of his defense. But before you round up the lynch mob and fetch your pitchforks, you must understand something about this year’s defensive malady.
The defensive unit, already thin from the scholarship ban, is exhausted. Plain and simple.
Blame the untimely penalties on 3rd down that resuscitated dead drives.
Blame it on a quick-strike passing offense that has the ability to score in a flash of lightening, and whose side effects include killing the clock with with incomplete passes.
Blame it on pass-happy play calling that fails to recognize the importance of a ground game's ability to sustain drives, run the clock, move chains, and give the defense a much needed rest.
But one thing that can't be overlooked is the obvious correlation between the number of plays involving the Trojan defense one week, and the yards given up on the ground, average yards per play, and losses in following weeks.
Pay attention now as you are about to learn something.
Forget about time of possession for a moment and let's think about the number of snaps.
USC’s 3 worst defensive performances have come in the weeks following games where they were on the field for 75 plays or more. Consequentially, they've lost all three games.
- It started with 87 defensive plays against Syracuse. The following week USC gives up 202 yards on the ground, an average of 6 yards per play, and loses at Stanford.
- Four games later, the defense is on the field for 85 plays against Colorado. The following week, Arizona rushes for 219 yards, averages 6 yards per play, and upsets the Trojans in Tucson.
- Perhaps more damaging than the loss itself, the defense is on the field for 94 plays against Arizona's spread offense. The following week, the Oregon steamroller came into the Coliseum and wore out the Trojan defense to the tune of 426 yards, 8.8 yards per play, and 62 points.
- USC's defense faced off against the mighty Ducks' offense 83 times. This week they face the Arizona State Sun Devils, whose defense ranks 7th in the nation against the pass, giving up 161 yards in the air per game. If Kiffin maintains the same game plan, and ASU is able to stifle Barkley, Lee, and Woods, you may be looking forward to another long game for the Trojan defense.
It will not get any easier the following week as UCLA’s rushing offense averages 226 yards per game.
Matt Barkley's Failure to Finish Business Dashes Heisman Hopes
Matt Barkley’s NFL draft stock was flying high last December.
He was faced with a decision to exit college following his junior year, collect his millions and proceed with his NFL career, or return to SC for his senior year.
With a lit Christmas tree behind him at his press conference, he announced his decision to return. He proclaimed he had “unfinished business.” Christmas came early for the Trojans.
Make room in Heritage Hall for another Heisman and possibly a piece of BCS crystal to replace the one that was repossessed by the NCAA.
Expectations have been sky high this year for Matt Barkley. It was BCS Champion and Heisman Trophy winner or bust. There was nowhere to go but down. As his squad continues to lose games and plummet down the polls, he unfortunately shoulders the brunt of the burden.
However, his apparent lack of personal success is a victim of the team’s failure to meet expectations; he has failed to outperform his coach's questionable play-calling or his defense's inability to make stops.
He has done his job for the most part, delivering some of the best passing numbers in the country.
- His tally of 30 touchdowns ranks him second in the nation.
- He is averaging more than 300 yards per game, and is on his way to his second straight 3,000 yard season.
As much as Barkley is perhaps a victim of expectation, he is most certainly a victim of a very unbalanced Trojan offensive attack. Barkley accounts for close to 70% of this team’s scoring.
That’s right. 70%.
Of the 45 touchdowns USC has scored this year, only 10 have come on the ground.
USC’s rushing attack has struggled to find its identity this year, placing more pressure on the arm of Matt Barkley. The damage done by his 10 interceptions has been magnified. With the exception of the Cal. game, each of his multiple interception games has equalled a loss for the Trojans.
Furthermore, Barkley, the conference and school record-holder in touchdown passes, risks becoming the first Trojan signal caller since the pre-Carson Palmer dark ages to never throw a pass in a BCS bowl game.
Even John David Booty won a Rose Bowl.
Student Body Wrong: Tailback U Fails to Find Identity
“Student Body Right” is a USC tradition.
USC is Tailback U.
The glory days of John McKay and John Robinson featured a hard-sweeping, downhill running game that battered and bruised opponents into submission. USC has five (yes we’ll count Bush) Heisman Trophy winning tailbacks.
Lane Kiffin’s offensive play-calling lacks the commitment or patience required to effectively run the rock.
Immediately following USC's victory over Washington, Kiffin proclaimed the identity of his offense to be a run first offense. They had matched their season high with 40 rushing attempts, netting over 200 yards for just the second time in six games.
Just as soon as he had us believing in SC’s commitment to the ground game, he abandons plans to run the ball and cuts the rushing attempts in half the following week against Colorado. We have already discussed the side-effects that game had on the Trojan defense.
It does not take a seasoned football genius to understand the impact that an effective rushing attack can have on a game.
Once a team establishes the run, it typically means a few key things: the offensive line has taken control of the line of scrimmage, which usually wears out opponents mentally and physically. The defense then adjusts its scheme, adding defenders in the box to help stop the run. Less defenders in the secondary can create a one on one environment for wide receivers.
And nobody in the country can man up with Marquis Lee or Robert Woods.
Most importantly for USC, an effective ground game kills clock, which gives its tired defense time to rest.
Taking advantage of the holes found in Oregon’s run defense was the missing key to what could have been a dramatic USC victory last week. The Trojans found success on the ground, rushing for an average of 5 yards per carry.
However they were never fully committed to controlling the line of scrimmage and running the football. They threw together a meager 26 attempts, their second lowest total for the season.
Kiffin stated in his press conference that he made the decision that the game was going to be like a “heavyweight fight” with “both sides landing blows.” He decided to try to sprint with Oregon in an offensive track-meet, matching them score for score, with ten less scholarship players.
The effect? By the 3rd quarter, SC’s defense had the look of a heavyweight fighter in the 12th round. They failed to make a stop because they were gassed.
USC currently ranks 75th in the nation in rushing with 152 yards on the ground per game.
Most alarming perhaps is the rushing touchdown ratio, which has been plummeting since 2008.
2008’s Rose Bowl Champion team finished 13-1 and rushed for 28 TD’s.
In Lane Kiffin’s inaugural season, 2010, they rushed for 20.
Last year it was only 12.
This year they have 10.
And Curtis McNeal, last year’s 1,000 yard rusher, has 0.
The 3rd Quarter
Let’s be blunt.
This USC team gets lunched in the 3rd quarter.
They have been outscored in 3rd quarters this season 70 - 42, a 28 point margin.
They are dominating teams in the first half, winning by a margin of 114 points.
But for some reason, after halftime it's a different story.
Is it possible to prepare a game plan around the fact that they have 10 less scholarship players on the field and may be more tired than a team at full strength? Is the effect of their sanctions that devastating?
At this stage of the season, with many teams down players due to injury, isn't everybody in the same boat?
Why are they so well prepared for the first half, and appear to be the exact opposite coming out of halftime. Some suggest that this is evidence that SC is losing the coaching battle. Their opponents come out of the locker room better coached and armed with more effective adjustments.
Is Lane Kiffin, the leader of "Arrogant Nation," ignoring the importance of halftime adjustments because of an undying belief in the overwhelming superiority of his team's athleticism?
Whatever the reason is, it does not bode well for a tired Trojan team, who must fight on through the 4th quarter of every game to secure a victory, often times against teams that the consensus pre-season #1 should be putting away early.
One of the expectations of this year’s team was that the public would get to see more snaps for backup quarterback Max Wittek. Not only would this mean that SC was handling business by the third quarter, it would give their possible future QB some game speed reps with the offense, preparing him for next year.
After all, he may be replacing the man who is responsible for 70% of SC's scoring output this year.
Most importantly, it would mean they were able to rest some starters, keeping them free from injury and fresh for the gauntlet they are now facing at the end of the season.
Kiffin’s inability to close the door early on opponents such as Hawaii, Syracuse, Cal, and Utah is having a negative effect on the team at this stage of the season.
Giving Away Yardage: Generous Charity or Stupidity?
Finally, let’s talk penalties.
It is common knowledge that USC leads the nation in penalties.
That’s close to 10 penalties per game.
In a game of inches, they are giving up close to 80 yards per game in penalty yardage. UCLA has them beat in this category though, surrendering 86 yards per game.
Perhaps the expectation of a perfect season was a bit too lofty.
Perhaps the pressure of playing perfect football is having a harmful effect on this team's ability to concentrate; their lapses of judgement and lack of discipline resulting from the overbearing amount of frustration combined with stress.
I wouldn't count on it. This team, like Trojan teams of the past, is stocked full of players who will impact the league on Sundays. They are some of the best athletes in the nation. They will be playing on Sundays because of a combination of their athleticism mixed with their mental makeup and innate ability to perform under pressure.
Maybe the team has its priorities mixed up and, as Lane stated, their "training to protect their brothers" has superseded their training to win football games.
It is possible that this Trojans team is merely a victim of the PAC-12 officiating conspiracy as 7 of the conference's 12 teams lie with the bottom 20 of college football's most heavily penalized teams.
But honestly, if blaming the officials isn't a tell-tale sign of a disappointing season, then I don't know what is.
This is the most penalized team in Trojan history dating back to Paul Hackett’s 1999 campaign of irrelevance and nonsense.
If USC stands a chance at a Rose Bowl, and they do control their destiny, they will have to play mistake free football.
A penalized team is the mark of an undisciplined team, and undisciplined teams do not win titles.
Despite Lane’s attempts to curb his team’s behavior, the penalties persist, costing his team yard after precious yard.
If he really is doing all that he can, one has to wonder why he has failed to get the the buy in from his players at this stage of the season.