USC's quarterback dilemma has no obvious resolution

USC did not immediately return to Los Angeles after its season-opening victory at Hawaii, staying one more night at its beachfront hotel before a scheduled return Friday.

The extended stay was planned. The Trojans' continuing search for a starting quarterback was not.


Cody Kessler and Max Wittek mostly struggled in Thursday night's 30-13 victory, keeping alive a debate that might feed into Coach Lane Kiffin's stated desire for competition at every position. It just doesn't do much for continuity. Or calm Trojans fans.

"There was not an obvious No. 1 out there," Kiffin said.

Fortunately for USC, its next three games are at home against Washington State, Boston College and Utah State. Not exactly Alabama, Ohio State and Oregon.

Unfortunately for Kessler and Wittek — andfor the embattled Kiffin — the pressure to perform in front of large, demonstrative crowds at the Coliseum will be far greater than it was in isolated Hawaii and mostly laid-back Aloha Stadium.

Hawaii showed that opponents don't have to be a Southeastern Conference power, or even Georgia Tech, to give USC's inexperienced quarterbacks and suspect offensive line trouble, especially if receivers drop passes.

So Kiffin is back to where he was the day after the Trojans lost to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl: He's searching for a quarterback who can consistently produce.

"My anticipation was that both guys would play great and that Cody would go right in there and do really well," Kiffin said. "Unfortunately, that didn't happen."

Going into the opener, Wittek had a resume, although not an overly impressive one, based on his two starts last season in losses to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech. But USC's fan base clamored for a look at Kessler, the Bakersfield native who had impressed during spring practice and nearly every training-camp scrimmage.

Kiffin said Kessler started against Hawaii based on practice performance last week when he was "really lights out" and performed in a way that "just kind of notched him barely ahead."

However, against Hawaii, Kessler appeared overwhelmed at times, reflecting the way Wittek looked in the Sun Bowl. Kessler was sacked for a safety, had several passes batted down and had one intercepted. He rallied to make a nice throw for a touchdown and deftly managed a last-minute drive in the first half that resulted in a field goal. He completed 10 of 19 passes for 95 yards in just more than two quarters.

Kessler acknowledged that he held the ball too long when a blitzing linebacker sacked him in the end zone and that he threw a screen pass intended for tailback Tre Madden too high, resulting in the intercepted pass.

"It's going to happen," he said. "You're going to make mistakes."

But Kessler was encouraged by his touchdown pass and execution in the final minute of the second quarter.

"I definitely felt like we got in a rhythm," he said.


Wittek was told at halftime that he would be going in — "The mind-set the entire time was staying prepared," he said — and he was happy to finally have an opportunity to move forward after his Sun Bowl performance.

Wittek's first two series went nowhere, and he was sacked the first two times he went back to pass, but his confidence seemed to grow as the second half continued. He led the Trojans to a field goal and a touchdown in the fourth quarter, finishing five for 10 for 77 yards.

"I think we both played well," Wittek said.

Just not well enough to make things clearer for Kiffin. So what now?

USC has a victory in hand and a weekend to rest and rehabilitate injured players. But Kiffin had hoped to return to his office at the McKay Center with a clear choice at quarterback.

He gave no indication whether he would start Kessler again in the Pac-12 Conference opener against Washington State, or give Wittek the first opportunity.

"We'll go back and watch it," Kiffin said, "before we make any big statements." @latimesklein