USC Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin told reporters that neither Cody Kessler nor Max Wittek had separated himself from the other in their ongoing quarterback competition. That was readily apparent to anyone who watched the USC defense drag its offensive counterparts out of an anemic funk in a 30-13 win over Hawaii.
The Trojans did not score a touchdown until there was 4:18 remaining in the first half, when Kessler uncorked a pretty lob to the corner of the end zone that Nelson Agholor hauled in.
That play was the night's passing highlight. Otherwise, Kessler and Wittek went a combined 15 of 29 and neither reached the 100-yard mark. It was a far cry from Matt Barkley's 372 yards and four touchdowns against the Warriors in last season's opener.
Kiffin's oft-maligned play-calling took center stage almost immediately. He kept Kessler and the offense on the field for a fourth-and-4 conversion attempt at the Warrior 23-yard line. Kessler's pass attempt to Marqise Lee was incomplete.
The next possession ended with USC in the red zone, and a sequence of futile efforts, starting from the one-yard line:
1. Tre Madden lost three yards.
2. Kessler was crushed on a rollout.
3. Madden was snuffed out on a sweep pitch.
End result was the first of three Andre Heidari field goals.
Hindsight is always 20/20, but a fair question is how much would assigning a definitive leader in the weeks, or even just days leading up to Thursday have impacted the Trojans' rhythm?
Obviously, there's no right answer to this hypothetical. Sure, it couldn't have gone much worse—but perhaps it would not have gone much better. What unfolded on national television was insight into the dilemma that has faced Kiffin from the moment UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr ended Barkley's career last November.
Both Kessler and Wittek are talented. They were 4-star recruits, signed to USC's stellar 2011 class. Writing either off this early into their careers is a fool's errand—they have just three collegiate starts now between them.
The trouble for Kiffin is that he may not have the window necessary to wait out either progressing, and the maturation process won't get any easier for either quarterback. USC writer Trenise Ferreira astutely notes that the head coach cannot hide the team's quarterback deficiencies for long.
The Trojans will not enjoy as glaring of a talent disparity against the remainder of its schedule as it had against Hawaii, a team coming off a 3-9 campaign.
Conversely, Hawaii is an arduous trip for any program, say nothing of one trying to disprove mounting negativity. The five-hour flight, time adjustment and island atmosphere all make for a distracting opening weekend.
Moreover, the Trojans were also breaking in new running backs, with veteran Silas Redd back on the mainland nursing a knee injury.
Next week's Pac-12 Conference opener against Washington State should provide a more clear assessment of where this USC team is in Kiffin's fourth season as head coach—as well as an assessment of Kiffin's immediate future outlook.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45.
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