Lane Kiffin’s USC debut is awkward yet impressive

“Where’s Reggie Bush! Where’s Reggie Bush!”

The catcalls began early, storm clouds rolling through a blue and billowy island afternoon, two guys in the second row of Aloha Stadium reminding the USC football team that it was embarking on a different sort of journey.

“Hey No. 7, you gonna be at the national championship game? You gonna be watching it like everyone else? Huh?”

As the Trojans warmed up for their 2010 opener against the University of Hawaii Thursday, the first game since being handcuffed by NCAA probation, the restraints cut deep and the reputation burned.

“Hey Kiffin, sing ‘Rocky Top’ for us! C’mon Kiffin! A little ‘Rocky Top!’ ”

This will be a strange ride indeed, as the Trojans began their new era in a stadium only three-quarters full, in front of fans who are no longer impressed, finding their feet one awkward step at a time.

It didn’t help, perhaps, that the whole shebang took place on a green carpet in the middle of the ocean, in a place where the marching band played the theme from “Hawaii Five-0" while a cheerleader was carried into the stadium on a surfboard. To the tropical distractions, add a new coaching staff, a roster thinned by probation defectors, and a bunch of players about whom Kiffin said he was “unsure.”

When the night ended, he likely still felt that way, and anybody watching would agree. If this first game is any indication, this Trojan season will indeed be a wackiness in progress.

There were some brilliant moments here. But there were also some boneheaded ones.

There was quarterback Matt Barkley showing that perhaps he really can be as good as Pete Carroll once claimed, showing that he used this lost Trojans off-season to find himself. He completed his first seven passes before one was dropped. For three quarters he had tied a school record with five touchdown passes, completing 18 of 23 for 257 yards in the process, not just an arm but a leader.

But then there was a defense that seemed as confused as ever, new coordinator Monte Kiffin failing to prepare them for Hawaii’s surprise “pistol” formation. He apparently never saw it coming, and through three quarters the Trojans gave up 400 yards to players half their size, the linebackers being run over and around, their secondary shredded.

There was resilient running back Marc Tyler, playing only because celebrated freshman Dillon Baxter was suspended, showing that maybe he should keep the job for a while, rushing for 110 yards on 6.9 yards per carry through three quarters.

But then there were the penalties, promised to be reduced by new Coach Lane Kiffin, but back and dumber than ever, an offside penalty leading to the Warriors’ second field goal, and three penalties on three consecutive plays leading to Hawaii’s third field goal.

Fitting for a season that is beyond prediction, the Trojans were both very good and very bad, with sometimes both things occurring in the same person, and that would be, of course, Kiffin.

The coach promised that the Trojans would play with more character, and they did. They did not swagger. They did not gloat.

David Ausberry scored the season’s first touchdown on a 46-yard touchdown pass in which he shrugged off a tiny Hawaii defender, but the strongman stuff stopped there. After crossing the end zone, he simply stared into the stands, then returned to his team.

Kiffin set the example by spending most of the game huddled under his visor and headphones, reading his play chart as he walked unobtrusively along the sidelines. He even celebrated a tremendous Barkley six-yard touchdown pass to a diving Rhett Ellison simply by pumping a fist and throwing up his hands to stop his celebrating team from running on to the field.

Strong signals, all of them. But then Kiffin mitigated some of them by a string of early two-point conversion attempts that summoned the same old those-bragging-Trojans boos.

On the first conversion attempt, the Trojans broke out a funky formation that failed them, and the TV cameras immediately focused on Kiffin as if to scream, “You jerk!”

But on this night, the college football world’s favorite jerk wasn’t really a jerk. Kiffin seemed to be just like the rest of the Trojans, trying to figure out his place in this new world, making mistakes, but making the effort.

The best glimpse of the new Trojans might have occurred late in the first half, after Hawaii scored on a 56-yard pass against that awful defense to pull to within a touchdown.

Barkley calmly drove USC back down the field, going four for six for 46 yards and an eventual 13-yard touchdown pass to Johnson. Afterward, the entire team gathered in a huge circle on the sideline. Only it wasn’t about taunting or celebrating, it was about listening, Kiffin jumping into the center of the scrum to deliver a shouting, gesturing pre-halftime pep talk.

It’s all very strange, but they are all really trying, and on this first long night of a long autumn, that would have to be enough.