From his perch in the coaches’ booth high above the Coliseum field, Lane Kiffin pounds a fist on the table. It is the first half of Saturday night’s game against Arkansas and officials have just waved off a USC touchdown, ruling the receiver did not have possession.
Kiffin, the Trojans’ new offensive coordinator, curses in frustration, then quickly returns to the task at hand. Second and goal from the three. Leaning forward in his seat, ball cap tugged over his forehead, he watches Arkansas send extra defensive linemen into the game.
“They’re subbing in all their big guys,” he says in a quiet sort of growl. “We could run it off the edge.”
Down on the sideline, assistant head coach Steve Sarkisian listens on headphones. He and Kiffin have only a few seconds to decide on a play.
“You have different ideas and thoughts,” Sarkisian says later. “There isn’t a lot of time for discussion.”
This season, as the top-ranked Trojans make a run at their third straight national championship, Sarkisian and Kiffin are on the hot seat. After passing guru Norm Chow left for the NFL, the young assistants were handed the reins to what might be the most powerful offense in college football.
They have the luxury of calling plays for Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Matt Leinart, tailback Reggie Bush and a squad loaded with veteran talent. They have the burden of knowing that anything less than another title will be a disappointment.
And much of the blame -- in the eyes of fans and media -- could fall on them.
“I don’t think you can ignore that,” Sarkisian says.
It isn’t just their youth -- Kiffin is 30, Sarkisian 31. Questions have arisen about how they will work together in a seemingly complex arrangement designed by Coach Pete Carroll.
Every move they make, every play they call, will be scrutinized. Like that second-and-goal against Arkansas.
Kiffin scans his call sheet -- a list of plays for every conceivable situation -- and finds something that he and Sarkisian agree on.
“27 Power Quad,” he says. “Run it.”
Even as the Trojans line up, the coordinator returns to the list, head propped in his hands. If the run fails, he is thinking about a three-wide formation for third down.
There is no need. Just as he glances up, tailback LenDale White bulls off the left side, stretching the ball across the goal line.
They could hardly be more different. Sarkisian is square and stocky, dark-haired, a former Brigham Young quarterback who is endlessly upbeat. Kiffin is a coach’s son, his father Monte a longtime NFL assistant. He is tall and thin, fair-skinned, not as talkative or quick to smile.
They could hardly be more alike, joining the USC staff four years ago, growing up together as coaches.
Chow was a major influence -- Sarkisian played for him at BYU; Kiffin sat beside him in the booth last season -- but these two are ultimately Carroll guys, a product of the USC system. Carroll made this argument in hiring them last spring: They’ve been around; they know how we work.
Their week begins on Sunday, reviewing the previous day’s game and watching film of the next opponent. Sarkisian and Kiffin then meet with the other offensive assistants to discuss general thoughts.
It’s not as though they reinvent the wheel each time out. While new wrinkles might be added, their game plan relies heavily on plays the team has practiced since summer camp.
“We have to find the plays we do well and figure out where do we plug them in against specific defenses we think [the opponent] is going to run,” Sarkisian says.
This notion is reinforced by the three-page schedule the staff follows during the week. “Remember who we are!” it reads. “Stay with the plan/blueprint!”
Mondays are for choosing first- and second-down plays, which are introduced at practice the next day. Tuesdays are for third downs and inside-the-20 plays. Wednesdays are more red zone, short yardage and goal-line situations.
By Thursday night -- “Go Home!” the schedule says -- Sarkisian and Kiffin have pretty much settled on their strategy and compiled their call sheet.
First and 10. Second and short. Inside the 20-yard line. Under each heading, plays are prioritized.
“It’s kind of like a menu,” Sarkisian explains. “Here’s our five appetizers. Here’s the choice the chef says is best. Here’s the choice the customers like. And here’s the third choice, my favorite. You just kind of follow that order.”
Final adjustments come Friday. For Arkansas, that means deleting a couple of pass plays.
“The quarterback and some of the other players weren’t comfortable with them,” Kiffin said. “We’ll keep practicing them for later.”
The coaches’ booth at the Coliseum is just wide enough for five assistants shoulder-to-shoulder. Kiffin takes a seat at the far right, arranging his colored pens, the call sheet and a loose script for the first 15 plays. On the wall, he tapes various papers and an Arkansas roster.
The final minutes before kickoff are devoted to fidgeting with his headset. He tries the earpiece on the right side, then the left, with his cap on, off, then on again. Crowd noise and a steady drumbeat from the marching band streams in through an open window until he finally calls across the booth to linebacker coach Rocky Seto.
“Is it time?” Seto asks. “Have you had enough atmosphere?”
Kiffin nods and Seto slides the window closed. That quickly, the room is quiet enough to hear the coaches rustling their papers. While the defensive guys tend to be loud, emotional, Kiffin does his best to remain businesslike.
Save for occasional flashes of excitement and anger, his voice remains hushed as he speaks in strings of code. Almost like an air traffic controller.
First he calls formation and personnel. “Three wide. Give me a different tight end.” Then comes the play.
“Here we go,” he says. “I left Z, 13 release.”
Seven months ago, when Chow left for the Tennessee Titans amid reports of a rift with Carroll, fans and the media wondered about how the two new guys would go about filling his spot. Carroll tried to explain: Kiffin calls plays from the booth; Sarkisian has final say from the sideline. “That is, of course, unless I enter in,” the head coach added.
The relationship sounds complicated, but Carroll insists there is a natural flow to it. The process goes back to something he learned from former San Francisco 49er coach Bill Walsh: Prepare for every possible scenario and make all your tough decisions during the week.
“People think that during the game it’s ‘Let’s try this’ or ‘Let’s try that,’ ” Carroll says. “But so many situations have already been ironed out. We know what we want to do.”
Against Arkansas, Sarkisian and Kiffin make their calls seamlessly. This efficiency, they say, is the result not only of preparation but of working together the last few years.
“You start thinking alike,” Sarkisian says.
As soon as Kiffin makes a call, he begins searching for the next one, assuming there will be no gain. As the play unfolds, he quickly adjusts.
During some of USC’s longer drives, it is not unusual to see him call the next play within a second or two of the tackle. That second-quarter touchdown by White notwithstanding, he and Sarkisian rarely feel a need to discuss their choice.
It also helps that, against Arkansas’ defense, almost everything they select turns into points.
On the third play from scrimmage, Bush breaks loose for a 76-yard touchdown run. The tailback is still 20 yards from the end zone when Kiffin begins calmly dissecting the play, talking to Sarkisian about the defense.
“The front side, the Will and the Mike zoned it,” he says. “Steve, ask Steve Smith when he ran his post, where the safety was.”
The next series, Leinart throws a 29-yard touchdown pass to Bush for a 14-7 lead and Kiffin lets slip a bit of emotion.
“Yeeesss,” he says, pulling off his headset, stretching his neck. Then it’s back to work.
Carroll has talked to his offensive assistants about the scrutiny they will encounter this fall. It is a battle they probably cannot win, at least not in the short run.
No matter which play they choose in a given situation, fans and the media can argue that another would have been better. That Chow would have done something different.
Consider the season opener.
The Trojans rolled to a 63-17 victory over Hawaii and, comparing film of that game to last season, Arkansas Coach Houston Nutt saw little change in the offense. “Your running game, your mix of formations ... you don’t see them missing a beat,” Nutt says.
Yet Sarkisian and Kiffin were criticized for not establishing the run, not using White enough at tailback. A couple of timeouts on first down raised questions about their play-calling efficiency.
After the Arkansas game, which saw one big play after another, Kiffin seems a little sensitive.
“There might have been more running,” he says. “But when you have a team on the ropes, you want to put them out early.”
In reality, any immediate effect from the coaching change is diminished by Leinart’s presence. As Nutt says: “The main thing is, you have a quarterback who is basically a coach. ... He’s a general.”
Perhaps the biggest test for Sarkisian and Kiffin comes later. Chow forged his reputation by developing great quarterbacks -- Steve Young and Ty Detmer at BYU; Carson Palmer and Leinart at USC. It remains to be seen if the new guys can maintain that heritage.
In the meantime, Carroll has been conspicuously supportive, urging them to be aggressive in their play-calling, trying not to interject.
Kiffin says that he is too busy with film sessions, meetings and practices to take note of public opinion. Sarkisian tries to ignore it.
“If we’re worried about what people think, about living up to the standards that have been set here, we’re not focused on what’s important,” he says. “We’ve got to worry about preparing our players.”
After White stretches into the end zone for a 35-10 lead, Sarkisian walks up and down the bench, asking players their view of what the Arkansas defense is doing.
The USC coaches are surprised that the Razorbacks are staying in man-to-man coverage no matter how often the Trojans get open deep. Sarkisian keeps asking the receivers if they are seeing the same thing. He passes along comments that Kiffin chatters in his ear.
“Remind Reggie on ‘Rip It’ to never go inside, always go outside,” Kiffin says.
As is his habit, Sarkisian then walks to the far end of the bench, away from the team, to clear his thoughts. He and Kiffin review the previous series, exchanging comments on each play, on the defense, all the good and bad of what transpired. They talk about what comes next.
Less than five minutes remain in the first half -- just enough time to check in with Leinart. Though Leinart was initially stung by Chow’s departure, he now says that too much has been made of the coaching change.
“I’ve had a relationship with these guys for three years,” he says of Sarkisian and Kiffin. “It’s not like new coaches coming in.”
Besides, he likes the fact they are young. “Sark, he’s like my friend,” Leinart says.
The USC defense holds and the offense is quickly back on the field. Sarkisian wriggles his fingers and waggles his arms, signaling plays from the sideline. The Trojans move 72 yards in three passes and a run.
On first and goal from the eight-yard line, Leinart throws again. As the ball sails through the air, Sarkisian contorts, leaning to one side, twisting, lifting a leg. Dwayne Jarrett catches the pass for a touchdown and the assistant pumps his fist.
The score is 42-10. Sarkisian and Kiffin are on the way to guiding their offense to 736 yards and a 70-17 win, another big night against an overmatched opponent.
Critics might argue that, so far, USC hasn’t played anyone good. Certainly there haven’t been many tough decisions to make in two blowout victories. But, as Kiffin says, “It’s always fun when the scoreboard begins lighting up.”
For this night at least, the pressure is off.
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The Trojans are second in the nation in points per game and third in yards per game this season:
*--* Team PPG Texas Tech 68.0 USC 66.5 Toledo 53.3 UCLA 49.3 Arizona State 48.7
*--* Team YPG Texas Tech 711.50 Arizona State 630.67 USC 627.00 Michigan State 557.33 Missouri 553.67