One Foot Inbounds: Blame Lane
by Matt Hinton
The obituaries for Lane Kiffin's tenure at USC were written weeks ago, in the wake of an inexcusable loss to Washington State, and even then felt like exercises in restating the obvious. The guy got off the plane from Tennessee trying to justify his existence at a job almost no one thought he deserved. By the time his boss ditched him on the tarmac after Saturday's debacle at Arizona State, there was nothing left to add.
So we know the why: The once-mighty Trojans are 10–8 since opening the 2012 season atop the Associated Press poll, the last three of those losses coming at the hands of unranked teams. Arizona State, the anvil that broke the camel's back, is the second team in that span to tattoo 62 points onto the defense's chest, matching Oregon's indelible romp last November for the most points ever scored against USC. As of the wee hours of Sunday morning we know the when and (to everyone's delight) the where. Which leaves the really difficult question for any postmortem: the how. How did a team that seemed to have everything going for it 12 months ago get so bad, so fast?
Obviously, Kiffin inherited some rot from predecessor and mentor Pete Carroll, which was beginning to show in an unexpected slide to 9–4 in Carroll's final season, 2009; prior to that, USC had won at least eleven games and at least a share of the conference title in seven consecutive seasons, and finished in the top five in the polls following a BCS bowl in all seven years. There was also the matter of the heavy-handed scholarship restrictions handed down by the NCAA shortly after Kiffin's arrival, which seemed specifically designed to keep the Trojans from getting anywhere near a championship for the foreseeable future. (So far, so good.) But local expectations never quite followed that logic, and neither did the 2011 team, which rocketed into the top ten in the final polls on the strength of a four-game winning streak to close the season -– a run that included a season-defining 38–35 upset at Oregon that knocked the Ducks out of the BCS title game, and would have been even more dramatic if not for a triple-overtime loss to Andrew Luck-led, BCS-bound Stanford a few weeks earlier. That lineup returned virtually intact in 2012, with a Heisman frontrunner in Matt Barkley and every goal that was beyond the NCAA-imposed ceiling in 2011 suddenly well within reach. But success means expectations, and expectations meant no more safety net between the peak and the valley that has consumed most of the last year.
From afar, the aftermath of the scholarship penalties probably seems like a straightforward case of cause-and-effect: Sanctions imposed, record suffers, everyone learns a very valuable lesson about trying to buck the NCAA's enforcement regime. Up close, though, that assessment seems lazy. As far as the numbers go, the current roster is carrying the full, post-sanctions limit of 75 scholarship players, only ten below the standard 85-man limit imposed on everyone else. Seventy-one of those 75 were signed directly from high school or junior college (i.e. not former walk-ons), and 61 are in at least their second year on campus. That's a full three-deep.
More to the point, thanks to Kiffin's apparent success as a recruiter –- the only area in which he consistently excelled –- there is no way to argue that this lineup is not completely stacked.
Given that recruiting rankings have a predictably strong correlation with success, those numbers speak for themselves: More than 75 percent of the players USC signed under Kiffin came with a four or five-star rating, where no other team in the conference comes close to 50 percent. Nearly half of Kiffin's signees (36 of 77) were ranked among Rivals' top 100 prospects in their respective class, at any position. (That includes all three quarterbacks on the current roster, Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and Max Browne.) Out of 22 starters against Arizona State, all but two (offensive linemen Marcus Martin and Chad Wheeler) came from that four- and five-star pool, which also supplied 16 players who came off the bench. Only one member of the starting lineup against ASU, safety Su'a Cravens, is a true freshman; only four others (Wheeler, wide receiver Nelson Agholor, defensive tackle Leonard Williams, and cornerback Kevon Seymour) are redshirts or true sophomores. Everyone else is in at least his third year in the program.
That's the kind of "depth problem" most coaches who are not Nick Saban dream about every night. The fundamental reality that swallowed Kiffin whole has not changed: Man-for-man, athlete-for-athlete, the Trojans are still as physically imposing as any lineup in America, and there is still no excuse for it to ever appear otherwise, against anyone, under any circumstances. When Carroll's teams lost a game, it felt like a seismic event with ripple effects across the country. When Kiffin's teams lost –- because it happened so often, and because it elicited such schadenfreude directed at Kiffin personally –- it felt like the chasm was opening up beneath him and him alone. At some point in his relatively brief tenure, USC lost to every team in the conference except California, Utah and Colorado. Against the top two teams in the league in the span, Oregon and Stanford, Kiffin was 1–5. Against Notre Dame, he was 1–2. Last November's loss to UCLA officially ceded the Los Angeles Football Monopoly to the Bruins. In the end, his team scored seven points in a loss to Washington State and allowed 62 in a loss to Arizona State in a span of three weeks. If not for the surge at the end of 2011, it might not have taken so long to arrive. But in retrospect, it was never really in doubt.
- This may be a bizarre thing to say about a game dominated from start-to-finish by the offenses and by two sharp unflappable senior quarterbacks in particular, but the difference in Georgia's 44–41 win over LSU ultimately came down to the line of scrimmage, which was won by the Bulldogs on both sides of the ball. Offensively, the Bulldogs pounded out 198 yards rushing on 5.8 per carry, most of it coming with workhorse Todd Gurley sidelined by an injury, and held LSU's usually nightmarish pass rush without a sack on the star of the day, Aaron Murray. On the other side, despite the success of the Tigers' NFL-bound receivers against a very green secondary (see below), UGA held their top four tailbacks to 109 yards on just 3.8 per carry, and took a good chunk of that back by sacking Zach Mettenberger four times. (Including sacks, LSU finished with 77 yards on 2.1 per carry.) On the decisive drive in the final two minutes, the pass rush sealed the win by forcing Mettenberger to unload four consecutive, hurried incompletions without the luxury of setting his feet under pressure. Just to show they still play some defense in the SEC, when absolutely necessary.
- It wasn't a blowout, but Notre Dame's 35–21 loss to Oklahoma was a worst-case scenario for the Irish in terms of their most glaring question marks. At quarterback, Tommy Rees was picked off on his second and third attempts of the game, putting the Irish in a 14–0 hole barely three minutes in; he added a third pick in the second quarter and finished with a dismal efficiency rating of 76.4, reigniting the debate over his viability as a starter. Defensively, the Irish yielded more than 200 yards rushing (212) and passing (238) to an offense with a newly installed quarterback making his first road start, reconfirming how badly they miss Manti Te'o roaming the middle of the field. In terms of returning to a BCS bowl, with two losses the margin of error over the rest of the season has been reduced to zero with Arizona State, USC, BYU, and Stanford still to come. This is shaping up very quickly as the latest in a long line of seasons on the margins, making last year's run to the BCS title game seem that much more ... well, miraculous.
- Braxton Miller eliminated any shreds of doubt about his status as Ohio State's starting quarterback, accounting for 281 total yards, five touchdowns and zero turnovers in a 31–24 win over Wisconsin. Even more encouraging, though, was the defense, which held its own against the punishing Badger ground game with a surplus of new faces up front -– five starters in the Buckeyes' front seven were making their first career start, and succeeded from the start in taking the Badgers out of their smashmouth comfort zone. Wisconsin's 1–2 punch at tailback, Melvin Gordon and James White, managed 105 yards on just 23 carries, 161 yards below their season average; that left most of the work on offense to the arm of Joel Stave, who obliged by serving up a key interception in the third quarter. That set up a short field for OSU's only touchdown of the second half, which turned out to be the decisive margin in a game that may very well decide one of the slots in the Big Ten Championship Game.
- The upset of the week came in West Virginia, where the Mountaineers rebounded from a 37–0 flop against Maryland by taking out the tentative favorite in the Big 12, Oklahoma State, in a sloppy 30–21 ambush that throws the conference pecking order into utter chaos behind Oklahoma. It was not for the feint of heart: The offenses combined for 18 punts, five turnovers and four missed field goals. The quarterbacks, J.W. Walsh and Clint Trickett, combined to throw 97 passes but only completed 44 of them, or 45 percent; Trickett, a Florida State transfer who opened the season as a third-stringer, finished the game with a visible injury to his throwing shoulder, but kept right on throwing. If it's going to be this kind of year in the Big 12, readers are advised to reserve all assumptions until the ride has come to a complete stop.
- MIKE EVANS, WR, Texas A&M. Evans was visibly gimpy in the second half of a 45–33 win over Arkansas, one of the reasons –- along with the rain –- A&M all but abandoned the passing game after the break. (All 16 plays on the Aggies' two second-half touchdown drives came on the ground, only one of which was a carry by Johnny Manziel.) By then, though, Evans had already reaffirmed the absurdity of his existence, using his pterodactyl wingspan to haul in a 49-yard bomb on the first snap of the game, followed by a pair of first-half touchdowns.
On the second score, he validated Manziel's freewheelin' joie de vivre by hauling down an ill-advised jump ball in the middle of triple coverage, proving again that the line between "fun" and "frustrating" is only as thick as your support staff.
- MIKE DAVIS, RB, South Carolina. As good as he'd been through the first three games, the second half against Central Florida may be a turning point for Davis in his emergence as the reliable, every-down workhorse Carolina has been missing since Marcus Lattimore. Before Saturday, Davis had flashed home-run potential on a pair of 75-yard runs against North Carolina and Georgia, and accounted for 144 all-purpose yards in the win over Vanderbilt. Before halftime at UCF, he'd only touched the ball seven times for 27 yards, taking a backseat even in the running game to quarterbacks Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson; the Gamecocks went into the break down 10–0 on the road, with Shaw on ice for the rest of the day (or longer) due to a bum shoulder and no ground game to speak of. After halftime, Davis took his first carry for six yards, his second for eleven and his third for 53, at which point the rest of the offense began to feel redundant. Excluding the first half altogether, Davis finished with career highs for carries (21), yards (150) and touchdowns (3) in the final two quarters alone, lifting Carolina to a 28–25 win that turned the moment Steve Spurrier decided to start giving his best player the ball. If he can handle 20 carries a game in the SEC without losing a step in the open field, Davis brings more to the table than even Lattimore did.
- ZACH METTENBERGER TO JARVIS LANDRY. Mettenberger, Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. did everything they could possibly be expected to do to lift LSU past Georgia, and then some: Sixteen of Mettenberger's 23 completions went to his top two targets, for 274 of his 372 yards, including all 125 yards in the fourth quarter -– all without the usual safety net supplied by the running game and defense. But the numbers don't quite convey the degree of difficulty on many of those throws, and words don't fare much better on the third-and-10 laser Mettenberger beamed to Landry in between three UGA defenders at the start of the fourth quarter.
The window for completing a pass on this throw was about as wide as completing a pass through the window of a car going 45 mph in an alley, right before it crashes into a wall. Landry held on despite getting a helmet-removing knee to the head from Tray Matthews, setting up a short touchdown run two plays later that tied the game at 34. Both of them should hang the gif above their fireplace, as soon as they can afford a fireplace. Which will be soon.
- TRE MADDEN, RB, USC. On a relentlessly dark night for their team, Madden and true freshman Justin Davis seemed like the only Trojans remotely interested in saving their coach's ass, combining for 316 total yards and six touchdowns in a futile effort. If anything, Madden's ongoing success in the second half made the flop even worse by serving as a reminder that there is still some first-rate talent in this lineup. No one would have blamed him if, at the end of his 48-yard, catch-and-run touchdown at the beginning of the fourth quarter, he'd just kept on running.
- BOGUS TARGETING PENALTIES. This week's entry into the "WHAT IS HE SUPPOSED TO DO? / IS THIS STILL FOOTBALL?" file was an inevitable flag against South Carolina safety Brison Williams for teeing off on a UCF receiver in the second quarter in Orlando.
It's hard to imagine a cleaner, more technically sound hit under the current rule: Williams clearly leads with his shoulder, into the shoulder of an eligible receiver with the ball in his hands. Neither player's helmet makes contact with anything but his own scalp. Because Williams left his feet, though, officials felt obliged to throw the flag for "targeting," docking the Gamecocks 15 yards on a play that the same officials were forced to concede was as clean as it could be on replay. (Williams was initially ejected, by rule, until he was cleared by the video evidence; still, by rule, the penalty could not be overturned.) The same sequence unfolded later on in response to another hard but clean hit by Alabama's Eddie Jackson, moving Ole Miss into the Bama red zone.
Just another day at the races in 2013, when doing exactly what you're supposed to do can still cost you 15 yards if it makes anyone in stripes cringe. The emphasis on targeting is still a good rule on paper, and still impossible to apply with any kind of consistency by actual human beings.
- CAL'S BALL SECURITY. Playing in a monsoon, the Golden Bears lost four fumbles on their first twelve offensive snaps at Oregon, leading to three Duck touchdowns in the first eight minutes. Including turnovers on downs, Cal finished with nine giveaways –- eight in the first half –- in a 55–16 rout.
- MINNESOTA'S OFFENSIVE MAKEOVER. I admit it, I picked Minnesota to beat Iowa, almost entirely on the strength of the Gopher ground game in last week's win over San Jose State. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Against the Spartans, redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner did his best Collin Klein impression by lumbering for 151 yards and four rushing touchdowns in his first career start; as a team, Minnesota finished with 353 yards on 67 carries, its best performance on the ground since it fired run-oriented coach Glen Mason in 2006, and a whopping 21-minute advantage in time of possession. Although clearly lacking as a passer compared to the regular starter, Philip Nelson, Leidner gave the Gophers a chance to forge an identity that has been sorely lacking for years.
Against Iowa, Leidner didn't see the field, Minnesota ran 27 times for 30 yards and finished with huge deficits in total offense (464 to 165) and time of possession (36:01 to 23:59) en route to a 23–7 loss that wasn't nearly that close. The Gopher offense failed to cross midfield a single time, its only points coming on the heels of a long kickoff return to the Iowa 34 in the third quarter. Nelson, coming off a hamstring injury, took advantage of his job security by completing 12-of-24 passes for 135 yards and two interceptions. Coach Jerry Kill defended his decision to relegate Leidner to the bench by telling reporters "Philip was our first team quarterback and he played well until he got hurt," and "How we use [the quarterbacks] will be dictated by what the situation in the game is and where we're at." But if that situation doesn't arise in the course of seven consecutive series ending in a punt or turnover to start the game, when will it?
- VIRGINIA–PITT, THE GAME THAT TIME FORGOT. The Cavaliers and Panthers combined for 387 yards of total offense on 2.9 yards per play, producing as many drives that ended in a turnover or turnover on downs (eight) as third-down conversions. Pitt won, 14–3, courtesy of a pair of touchdown drives that covered 19 yards and 18 yards, respectively, following UVA fumbles in the first quarter.
OFI TOP 25
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1. ALABAMA (4–0).
2. OREGON (4–0).
3. CLEMSON (4–0).
4. STANFORD (4–0).
5. OHIO STATE (5–0).
6. GEORGIA (3–1).
7. FLORIDA STATE (4–0).
8. LSU (4–1).
9. SOUTH CAROLINA (3–1).
10. TEXAS A&M (4–1).
11. WASHINGTON (4–0).
12. OKLAHOMA (3–0).
13. UCLA (3–0).
14. LOUISVILLE (4–0).
15. NORTHWESTERN (4–0).
16. MIAMI (4–0).
17. BAYLOR (3–0).
18. MICHIGAN (4–0).
19. FLORIDA (3–1).
20. FRESNO STATE (4–0).
21. VIRGINIA TECH (4–1).
22. ARIZONA STATE (3–1).
23. OLE MISS (3–1).
24. OKLAHOMA STATE (3–1).
25. MARYLAND (4–0).
– – –
In: Virginia Tech, Arizona State.
Out: Notre Dame, Georgia Tech.
Waiting: Texas Tech, Missouri, East Carolina, Northern Illinois, Iowa.
LOWSMAN TROPHY WATCH
The weekend's most outstanding linemen, defenders and other darkhorses.
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1. BRADLEY ROBY • CB, Ohio State.
Roby spent the non-conference schedule paying his dues, showing contrition for an offseason arrest by sitting out one game and coming off the bench in two others. With slightly higher stakes on the line Saturday, Roby was back to All-American form against Wisconsin, accounting for eight tackles (one for loss), three passes defended and the only takeaway of the game, a third-quarter interception that set up Ohio State's final touchdown. As per his scouting report, Roby stands out from the handful of elite cover corners in the 2014 draft class by proving equally valuable against the run.
2. CHRIS BORLAND • LB, Wisconsin.
Not to be outdone, Borland picks up his second Lowsman nod of the month for a 16-tackle performance against the Buckeyes that sounded as impressive in real time as it looks in the box score:
I don't know if I believe Borland is 5-foot-11 and 246 pounds, as Wisconsin claims, but I bet Carlos Hyde does.
3a. DERRICK HOPKINS • DT, Virginia Tech,
3b. KYLE FULLER • CB, Virginia Tech.
Hopkins and Fuller played a game of "Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside" to shut down Georgia Tech's triple-option attack, relying on Hopkins' strength to eliminate dives up the middle and Fuller's quickness to shoot gaps in the line, disrupting the quarterback's rhythm on his second read. The result: The Yellow Jackets managed just 129 yards rushing on 3.1 per carry, barely a third of the way to their season average, in a 17–10 loss that put the Hokies in the driver's seat in the ACC Coastal. Although Hopkins won on the stat sheet with a team-high seven tackles, Fuller was everywhere, taking on offensive linemen, forcing Georgia Tech to adjust its blocking schemes to account for him personally and generally harassing Jackets quarterback Vad Lee on every play that wasn't a handoff up the gut. Officially, he was credited with two tackles for loss and a forced fumble that set up Virginia Tech's first touchdown, but here's guessing he left a much more enduring mark on Paul Johnson's offense.
4. GEORGIA'S OFFENSIVE LINE.
Talented as it may be, clearly LSU's front seven hasn't reloaded as quickly as expected from the departures of Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery, Bennie Logan and Kevin Minter. (After that kind of exodus, it speaks volumes to the reputation of LSU's front seven that everyone just assumed they would.) Still, it's a testament to the starting five -– Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee, David Andrews, Chris Burnette and Kolton Houston -– that the Tigers struggled to lay a hand on Aaron Murray in Athens, and that the running game didn't miss a beat in the absence of Todd Gurley. Since 2007, LSU has averaged seven tackles for loss per game; on Saturday, it only managed two.
5. HA'SEAN CLINTON–DIX • S, Alabama.
Clinton–Dix led the Crimson Tide with eight tackles (6 solo, 2 assists) and a pair of passes broken up against Ole Miss, which failed to score in Tuscaloosa after putting 39 points at Vanderbilt and 44 at Texas. The Rebels managed a grand total of 205 yards of total offense on 3.6 per play, and also turned the ball over on downs on all three trips inside the Alabama 30-yard line, thereby becoming the 19th team Bama has held without an offensive touchdown since 2008.
17 comments, Last at 27 Jan 2014, 4:39pm
#2 by MikeMac (not verified) // Sep 30, 2013 - 4:44pm
I could almost cut people some slack on the scholarship limits and injuries being part of the problem at USC, if it wasn't for the somewhat consistent no-shows recently. Last year, I didn't see some of the games USC lost, but they seemed mildly shocking. At the Sun Bowl, this team never showed up at all, and against WSU, the offense was utterly lost. Ironically, the offense seemed to have improved by the time this latest game came about, but it was the defense that looked utterly lost. All of that falls squarely on the shoulders of coaching.
#6 by sundown (not verified) // Sep 30, 2013 - 5:41pm
Kiffin is just a horrible coach. Nothing else to say on that. They were somehow able to make his dad the scapegoat last season and run him out of town as a proxy, but Lane was a dead man walking. The interesting thing will be seeing if they truly are rid of him now, or if he'll haunt them again by getting them tagged for improprieties by the NCAA. Because he was sleazy at Tennessee and nothing about him trying to save his job would make him any less sleazy at USC. When sophomoric things like letting the air out of footballs isn't below him, you've got to wonder what all else he was doing.
#7 by bucko (not verified) // Sep 30, 2013 - 6:14pm
I guess I need to stop reading this part of FO. Stave throws for 297 yards and his performance is characterized as being the reason Wisconsin lost when you could point to about 10 other things that were far more impactful
Then a guy from OSU who got torched for a 200 yard receiving night is praised for his performance.
I understand there is more to football than mere numbers but there should be a blend between numbers and common sense.
#9 by coremill // Sep 30, 2013 - 8:19pm
Yeah a classic case of box score numbers being misleading. Roby had a lot of tackles and passes defended because Wisconsin was throwing at him all game, mostly successfully. It sounds like whoever wrote this didn't watch the game and just scanned the box score.
And Stave played well aside from the INT, which really was horrible. This game was basically decided by that pick and the terrible defensive breakdown on 4th down at the end of the first half. Despite the final score I came away more impressed with Wisconsin and less impressed with Ohio State, relative to my priors going into the game (I thought Wisconsin would lose by 14-20 points).
#15 by Will // Oct 01, 2013 - 11:59pm
At first blush, I felt the same, but at no point did I feel like Wisconsin was going to win the game. Similar to Alabama/A&M, one team just felt dominant, although the score was close at the end. A&M admittedly shot out of the gate against 'Bama, but Alabama controlled the majority of the game.
#11 by Solomon // Sep 30, 2013 - 11:23pm
No, Roby did not have a good game. However, I am happy with the win.
Good game, although Ohio State let off the gas and became conservative in the 4th quarter.
Since Schlabach of ESPN picked Wisky as his "upset special", maybe he could write a column saying something nice about OSU for once.
#12 by Myk (not verified) // Oct 01, 2013 - 1:43am
Kiffin is a pretty terrible coach. But, it seems a bit disingenuous to claim that they are some sort veteran laden team and that the sanctions didn't impact them whatsoever. They are choosing between SO QBs, haven't had a RB that higher than a SO make a carry and overall have a total of 22 yards (2 receptions by Flournoy) from a senior player.
Kiffin probably deserved to be fired. He might not have been the guy even if the team is full strength. But, to argue that sanctions have not impacted the team is just silly. It is funny to me that when the sanctions happened EVERYONE claimed that this would have a negative impact on the team and now that it is happening people are acting surprised.
PS...this is coming from a Washington fan that wouldn't have minded they keep him for the long run.
#16 by LionInAZ // Oct 04, 2013 - 1:13am
Losing 12.5% of your scholarships seems pretty trivial compared to the benefit of flashing the USC badge.
Kiffen wasn't all that great at Tennessee, didn't deserve to be hired at USC, and now they're reaping the rewards. I expect the same to happen elsewhere at schools that don't look too deeply at coach performance (e.g., Arizona).
#14 by Raiderjoe // Oct 01, 2013 - 12:37pm
Kiffij horrible coach.
Al Davis made good choice hiring him. Worth a shot. Turned out Lififjn could not coach so Davis quickly fired him
Tremendous move getting rid of Kiffin before mmore damage could be done