Lane Kiffin is going to opt for one quarterback going forward. After two games of live evaluation, Kiffin has elected to pick his poison. Cody Kessler or Max Wittek? Wittek or Kessler? Who should be the starter going forward?
Through two games of the 2013 season they are a combined 26-of-50 for 226 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Kessler's 18-of-32, 136 yards and one-to-two touchdown-to-interception ratio edges Wittek's 8-of-18, 90 yards and zero-to-one ratio.
Neither option is what USC's program, coaches or fans want. Neither option is what Marqise Lee, Nelson Agholor, Randall Telfer or Xavier Grimble likely deserve. Yet, these are the two options that the Trojans have, and on Monday, Lane Kiffin plans on naming one of them his starter, as reported by the Los Angeles Times.
With Cody Kessler, the Trojans can opt for the "safe" pick of the two. He's a kid who understands the offense and will generally get the team into the proper calls. Kessler not only has a grasp of the system, but he knows himself well and is willing to play very much inside himself and his abilities.
Therein lies the problem with Kessler—playing inside himself and his abilities truly limits what the team can do. Kessler's arm strength and accuracy downfield leave much to be desired, and thus the quarterback relies on the short passes that were the backbone of the stagnant offense against Washington State.
Kessler is at a point where he does not even look to stretch the field, only pushing the ball downfield once beyond 20 yards in the first half against the Cougars.
In Max Wittek, USC possesses a quarterback who has an arm big enough to get Lee and Agholor the ball downfield, and he is not scared to use it. Wittek is athletic, and he is comfortable throwing the ball on the run and moving out of the pocket due to distress or designed rollouts.
Wittek's issues show themselves when he is asked to operate down from the intermediate to short routes. Accuracy on short balls, passes where receivers have less leeway in adjustments, is a tremendous bugaboo for Wittek. Balls behind receivers on quick slants. Balls too far out in front of receivers across the middle. Balls sailed to running backs on swing passes.
Those incompletions become drive-killers, plays that gain no yards and then push USC's back against the wall by creating 3rd-and-long situations. In the past, 3rd-and-long was still manageable for a Trojans team with a high-caliber collegiate quarterback and weapons galore. This year, mired in the mediocrity that the rest of the college football world knows well, 3rd-and-long is something of a Mission: Impossible, with USC now 2-of-27 on the season.
Wittek vs. Kessler for the job: Here at Your Best 11, the option would be Wittek. Not by a landslide, and certainly not a clear choice. The choice of Wittek opens up the Trojans to more incompletions and possible three-and-outs.
However, the big-armed quarterback also creates the most area of opportunity for USC as an offense. This offense cannot live on slants and screens alone, which is exactly what Cody Kessler brings to the table. Couple that with his lack of mobility, and the offense simply remains limited.
A quarterback that doesn't have confidence in his deep ball is a quarterback with no deep ball. That means eight-man fronts versus the run, press coverage to stop the screens and no respect for Lee or Agholor over the top.
Wittek, with his athleticism, ability to throw on the run and willingness to push the ball deep can help this offense develop along a new path. A path that includes more shotgun and pistol looks, more emphasis on varied runs and an increase in play-action as the tool to stretch the field.
The more athletic quarterback also brings more rollout passes, bootlegs and waggles to an offense. That means they can work levels routes, sails and drags to get Lee, Agholor, Telfer and Grimble the ball down field while keeping the reads simple.
Most importantly, Wittek allows the Trojans to have a belief in the ability to at least take shots down the field. 50-50 balls to Marqise Lee and Agholor are better than no balls thrown deep at all. Especially with the nature of pass interference calls and the crafty abilities of the wideouts. Wittek gives those two weapons a chance that Kessler's screens and slants simply does not afford.
Whether Kiffin elects to go with Wittek or Kessler, the clear point here is that the offense is going to have to change. In a nutshell, USC is going to have to be like many other programs: Work the run, let a quarterback manage the game and hope its defense gets stops.
The offense will have to go more conservative, out of necessity. Kiffin will have to use 2nd-and-short to take shots instead of burning 1st-and-10 on a downfield ball. Watching Kiffin's adjustments, such as increasing shotgun and pistol looks and moving the pocket are just as critical as who lines up under center.
And, of course, despite the freshman falling out of the quarterback race back in August (according to the LA Times), Max Browne does remain an option for the Trojans. If things get bad enough, perhaps the freshman ends up with a shot, too.