Trojans' special teams take a lead role

USC's last-minute, 34-33 victory over Arizona State cast the spotlight on Trojans special teams — for better and worse.

The good: The Trojans blocked two punts and also an extra-point attempt, Torin Harris returning the latter for two points and setting the stage for Joe Houston's winning field goal four minutes later.

Jake Harfman averaged 43.5 yards a punt, and Mitch Mustain completed what turned out to be a crucial two-point conversion pass.

The bad: Houston missed two field-goal attempts, and the Trojans gave up a 100-yard kickoff return.

Nevertheless, Coach Lane Kiffin said Sunday that the development of the special teams was "probably the most exciting part of the season," which continues Saturday against No. 18 Arizona at Tucson.

Kiffin, coordinator of one of the most prolific offenses in college football history during his first stint with the Trojans, made improving special teams a priority after succeeding Pete Carroll.

"I think our fans would probably agree, for years of being here before, even though we had some great teams it wasn't one of our strong points," Kiffin said.

From the first day of spring practice, Kiffin has afforded special-teams coordinator John Baxter a wide berth. The Trojans spend as much time on special teams as offense and defense.

Kiffin said he was surprised when Arizona State Coach Dennis Erickson opted to kick rather than go for two after the Sun Devils scored to go ahead, 33-29. Tyron Smith blocked the kick and Harris' return resulted in a three-point turnaround.

"I was thinking of going for two but was talked out of it," Erickson said after the game.

"Whoever it was," Kiffin said Sunday, "I like that person."

Words of encouragement

Houston's game-winning kick makes him six of 12 on field-goal attempts this season.

At game's end, Houston searched the field for Arizona State kicker Thomas Weber, a former Los Angeles Loyola High standout who missed a potential game-winner.

"Just keep your head up and I know exactly how you feel," Houston said he told Weber, adding, "Thomas is a great friend of mine and it bums me out that he missed that kick, but I missed two chances earlier in the game."

Quick kicks

Kiffin on Harris' dive into the end zone, which resulted in a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct: "That was an extremely selfish move by him and one that luckily didn't cost us, but could have."… Michael Reardon, starting for the first time at left guard, graded out higher than any other offensive lineman, Kiffin said…. Receiver Robert Woods was limited Saturday after being hospitalized Thursday night because of back pain and vomiting, Kiffin said.

Times staff writer Baxter Holmes contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World