Late in the game, as Hawaii carved up the USC secondary like a fattened Christmas goose, I felt overwhelmed by the urge to regurgitate all of my lofty preseason hopes for the Trojans, and swallow instead more modest expectations for both the team and its new coach.
Specifically, with every missed tackle, I found myself blaming Coach Kiffin for failing to prepare the Trojans to play on the defensive side of the ball.
Every big play by the Rainbow Warriors seemed to arouse my suspicion that Lane Kiffin will not continue the glorious run of championship football inspired by the laid-back genius of Pete Carroll. After all, if the Trojans struggled against Hawaii, how will they fare against Stanford and Oregon, two teams that tore them apart last year? I went to bed quite convinced: Lane Kiffin = Paul Hackett.
This morning, while drinking my coffee, I challenged myself to identify any reasons that might prove my initial reaction false, and which might suggest a magnificent tenure at USC for head coach Lane Kiffin. Surprisingly, the exercise yielded three big reasons to celebrate Lane Kiffin’s debut at USC.
1. Competition Returns to Troy
Pete Carroll preached competition while at USC. He breathed it, lived it, and coached it. He uttered the word about as much as a Buddhist monk recites Om, which is a lot.
But late in his tenure at USC, especially his last year, competition sounded more like an empty motto than an actual practice, as it seemed that Pete played favorites with some players.
For example, Carroll seemingly benched C.J. Gable for minor fumbling issues; however, Joe McKnight could fumble repeatedly without suffering any reduced playing time. While Gable never exited the Carroll doghouse, McKnight seemingly could do no wrong, often taking away reps from a harder-running, more effective Allen Bradford.
This year, with Lane at the helm, competition actually means something again. For this, if nothing else, Trojan fans can celebrate.
Take the example of Allen Bradford, the feel-good story entering spring football. Having toiled in anonymity for years on the bench, Bradford had persevered, worked hard, improved, and would finally start at tailback for USC. Or so everyone assumed. But Kiffin proved that when it comes to competition , while Carroll talked the talk, Kiffin actually walks the walk.
Kiffin held open the competition for every spot on the team, and during the spring, summer, and fall, Marc Tyler emerged as the most consistent and effective runner. Despite all of the feel-good talk about Bradford, Kiffin did not hesitate to name Tyler the starter for the season opener.
Allen Bradford responded to the demotion with several excellent practices and 52 yards on eight carries against Hawaii. Tyler, the new starter, ran over Hawaii for 154 yards on only 17 carries. However, as Tyler has stated, he understands that constant competition requires him to continually win the job with effort and results.
This bodes well for USC because players understand that effort and results will win them jobs. Besides Tyler, true freshman receiver Robert Woods proved this by beating out redshirt sophomore Brice Butler for the start against Hawaii, as did sophomore linebacker Devon Kennard, who displaced the previous starter and Carroll favorite, Chris Galippo.
Though the two linebackers battled for the spot down to the wire, Kiffin ultimately named Kennard as the starter—a gutsy call that exemplifies the spirit of competition. At USC, no player can take his starting spot for granted. He must earn it continuously.
2. Matt Barkley Looked Great. Kiffin Can Coach Quarterbacks
When Pete Carroll pronounced Matt Barkley the first true freshman starter at quarterback for USC, most pundits and fans assumed that the youngster would struggle at times, and that the team would struggle right along with him. That prediction bore out throughout the season, as Barkley often times looked lost, flustered and unsure of himself and the offense.
Against Arizona State, Barkley completed less than 33 percent of his passes. Against Stanford, he threw three interceptions, including a couple that looked horrendous and sent the Coliseum crowd into a bloody frenzy.
Against Hawaii, after just a few short months under the tutelage of Kiffin, Barkley looked like the quarterback that Carroll loudly foretold.
Sure, Hawaii has not built up a reputation as a defensive juggernaut, so I’ll temper my extrapolations. Nonetheless, Barkley knew the offense and managed it effectively, threw short and medium passes with touch and pace, hit receivers in stride and managed to complete 78 percent of his throws, despite two dropped passes that hit receivers in the hands.
This season, the USC offense should perform admirably if Barkley can continue his development under Kiffin against tougher Pac-10 competition. Looking forward, young quarterbacks Jesse Scroggins, Max Wittek, and Cody Kessler should all benefit from tutelage under coach Kiffin.
3. Say Goodbye to the Running Back Committee, Say Hello to the Workhorse
Carroll recruited four- and five-star running backs in abundance, at one point featuring a “stable” 10 players deep. While it must be hard to turn down the commitment of a highly ranked runner, at some point you have to wonder: when will all of these guys play?
Carroll resolved that issue by employing a questionable running back committee that divided carries among four or five players, often resulting in a disjointed running attack that lacked rhythm, confidence, and purpose. A running back might carry the ball effectively a half-dozen times then disappear for the rest of the game.
Kiffin, on the other hand, has expressed his intention to divide carries primarily between two runners, with a preference to develop a workhorse or, perhaps, a “Thunder and Lightning” attack, a la Reggie Bush and LenDale White.
This approach will serve USC well, this season and into the future. While Bush and White made history at USC, the “stable” never produced consistently impressive results.
In fact, under Carroll, a breakout game did not always result in increased carries. In 2008, against Washington State, Broderick Green rushed for 121 yards, leading the team. Nonetheless, he was practically never heard from again the rest of the season, and transferred the following year.
After a tremendous performance against Hawaii, does anyone doubt that Marc Tyler will receive the bulk of the important carries against Virginia? If you do doubt it, think back to the second half of the game against Hawaii.
With the Trojans seemingly pulling away, Kiffin inserted Bradford into the game for a series. However, as Hawaii threatened to close the gap, Tyler quickly reentered the game and found the ball in his hands. Kiffin wanted his best back in the game and didn’t worry about keeping all of his running backs happy by splitting the workload.
As the season progresses, I expect both Bradford and freshman sensation Dillon Baxter to receive enough carries to show what they can do. But, I do not expect a running back committee. The best back will receive the lion’s share of the carries and the USC running attack will benefit as a result.