Lane Kiffin Fired: What Went Wrong on the Field the Last Two Years?

Michael Felder@InTheBleachersNational CFB Lead WriterSeptember 29, 2013

TEMPE, AZ - SEPTEMBER 28:  Head coach Lane Kiffin  of the USC Trojans reacts during the college football game against the Arizona State Sun Devils at Sun Devil Stadium on September 28, 2013 in Tempe, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The college football world woke up short one head coach in Week 5. The LA Times reported that Lane Kiffin was shown the door at USC following a 62-41 loss at Arizona State. As Scott Wolf of the Los Angeles Daily News noted, Kiffin's firing came swiftly.

In August 2012, the University of Southern California Trojans were sitting as the Associated Press' No. 1 team, with dreams of a BCS Championship. Now, just a year and a month removed, the team has gone 10-8 and is the first school to throw its hat into the coaching search derby.

So, what happened to USC? Where did the Trojans go wrong? How did a school go from 10-2 to 7-6 and then 3-2 to start 2013?

The easy and most popular answer is Lane Kiffin. That is the simple, vacuous answer to the complex problem. Especially since it is not so much a "head coach is responsible for everything answer" as it is a "we hate Kiffin, so let's put it all on him" response.

2012 saw the Trojans go 7-6 and deal with key offensive injuries, but more importantly, a defense that refused to tackle and could not defend the zone-read. For all of the offensive firepower, USC was undisciplined and ineffective on the defensive side of the ball, as exhibited by the Oregon game:

The Arizona game featured more of the same:

While there was little shame in playing a back at quarterback and coming up just short against Notre Dame, the showing against Pac-12 opponents featuring quarterback run threats was a cause for concern. When the offense puts up 51 points, the cross-hairs should be aimed squarely on the defensive issues. 

And then, this most recent Saturday happened, where Tyler Kelly, quarterback of Arizona State, gashed USC for 79 yards on the ground, plus 351 yards on 24-for-35 through the air. Missed tackles, blown assignments and plain old bad defense put the Trojans in a hole they could not get out of. 

DJ Foster, wide open for a touchdown:

Marion Grice, on a tackling optional touchdown:

Deontre Lewis on an "angles do not matter" long gainer:

After four games of showing up and playing like gangbusters, USC's 2012 defense worked its way into the 2013 system. Even as the offense battled, losing star receiver Marqise Lee in the process, the critical stops and plays the Trojans needed to regain a foothold in the game escaped the defense.

So, if you're looking for an on-the-field, legitimate reason that USC has struggled, start with the defense that could not get the job done. The Monte Kiffin and Clancy Pendergast group got carved up to the tune of 1,930 yards in three big games, against Arizona, Oregon and most recently Arizona State. Meanwhile, the USC offense put up 36, 51 and 42 points in those games, respectively.

That said, USC has had offensive woes as well. 2012's Stanford loss can be attributed to Kiffin's inability to adjust to the loss of center Khaled Holmes. Essentially, leaving Matt Barkley with a nose guard in his lap due to the insistence upon under-the-center play-calling, as evidenced by the four sacks, multiple batted balls and quarterback hurries.

Then, of course, there was this season's Hawaii and Washington State games that created a tremendous element of discontent within the USC fan base. A combination of dropped balls and timid quarterback play, rooted in Lane Kiffin's uber-conservative play-calling, fostered the climate that lead to his unceremonious dismissal.

No deep balls. A lot of "punting is winning" field position play. Screens galore to supplement the run left, run right and run middle. Trojan fan anger was very real. 

But Kiffin adjusted. He decided to ride with Cody Kessler at quarterback, and he got more inventive with his plays. He did push the ball deep. He rolled the sophomore out and found a way to get Lee and Nelson Agholor the ball. He got the tight ends involved in the passing game. He used runs from the shotgun and running back screens to supplement heavy doses of Tre Madden and Justin Davis.

The coach found a recipe that was working, and then his defense let Taylor Kelly get loose. The end result is Kiffin getting the pink slip and USC being coached in the interim by Ed Orgeron, Sports Illustrated reports.

This is not, or should not, be about Lane Kiffin's personality or the nepotism that people believe is the only reason he was hired. Rather, it is about real failures, most notably of the defense, that have sunk Kiffin's ship. With good defense, the coach would likely still be on the job. Unfortunately, being gashed for 612 yards and 62 points does not get the job done.