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Kragthorpe: USC's struggles turn up heat on Lane Kiffin

Published September 10, 2013 11:27 pm

"Master play-caller" finding offense hard to come by.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Monte Kiffin's departure apparently worked wonders for USC's defense.

Now, a growing number of Trojan fans want his son to leave Los Angeles as well.

Lane Kiffin may have found himself in an awkward position last season when his father's defense was being shredded by Arizona and Oregon, but that was nothing compared with the degree of heat he's under now. The irony is that new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast is doing great things, as demonstrated by Washington State's failure to score an offensive touchdown last Saturday.

The only problem for USC? The Cougars still won 10-7 at the Los Angeles Coliseum, the storied venue where Utah State will play next week.

The Trojans hope to have discovered an offense by then. USC's media guide labels Kiffin "a master play-caller," but the Trojans' No. 113 ranking in total offense among 123 teams defies that description. The program that has showcased quarterbacks Carson Palmer, Matt Leinart, Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley in this century delivered only 54 passing yards against WSU.

Even worse, the USC offense produced the Cougars' only touchdown, via Damante Horton's 70-yard interception late in the first half when the Trojans held a 7-0 lead and were driving.

Cody Kessler threw behind the receiver on that play; Max Wittek made a poor decision late in the game, resulting in another Horton interception that secured WSU's win.

So the winner of USC's quarterback derby is … Kessler. But Kiffin's not saying why Kessler was anointed the starter for Saturday's game vs. Boston College and the foreseeable future, for fear of having his words taken as criticism of either QB.

"There's so much negativity around them already, outside of this building," Kiffin said Tuesday.

Kiffin's conservative play-calling resulted in star receiver Marquise Lee catching seven passes against WSU, but gaining only 27 yards. Even with the emergence of tailback Tre Madden, the Trojans posted 193 total yards. So they wasted a solid effort by a defense that allowed 222 yards, although WSU's 49-yard screen pass led to the winning field goal.

USC's new, multiple defensive schemes will be tested by the spread offenses that tormented Monte Kiffin, who returned to the NFL as the Dallas Cowboys' defensive coordinator. But the initial results are encouraging, after Lane Kiffin authorized more physical practices — even though some injuries occurred as a result.

As unlikely as it seems, WSU coach Mike Leach once won a game 12-0, when his Texas Tech team beat Texas A&M. This victory topped that one for shock value, as the passing guru won without an offensive TD.

He'll take it, obviously. USC's coach, meanwhile, is searching for answers and hearing the criticism, as the sing-song chant of "Fire Kiffin" pervaded at the Coliseum that night.

That's a case when having a two-syllable last name is not such a good thing.

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com