Trojans look good and look awful in Lane Kiffin’s USC debut
“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, their 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!’ ”
The strange ride continued deep into the warm night, the Trojans pulling out a 49-36 victory that ended with a metaphorically perfect smattering of rain. Depending on how you look at it, USC ended up either revived or all wet.
Revived was Matt Barkley, who officially took about a dozen giant steps from last season, tying a school record with five touchdown passes, completing 18 of 23 for 257 yards.
“Wow,” said receiver Ronald Johnson, who caught three of those scoring passes and crossed the goal line a fourth time on an 89-yard punt return. “He’s really our quarterback now. He’s really the leader.”
All wet, however, was the Trojan defense, which gave up 588 yards with hula-dance tackling, their bodies swayed and bowed by the sprinting Warriors.
“It was a long game, there was a lot going on,” said cornerback Shareece Wright. “We need to get this figured out.”
Renewed was Marc Tyler, the longtime backup running back who gained 154 yards and scored a touchdown after playing steadily for the first time in seemingly a decade, his postgame smile stretching from year to year.
“Everybody was talking about sanctions, there was even a guy yelling at us from behind the bench, but we finally put all that behind us,” Tyler said. “It was great to just come out and play.”
All wet, however, was the view of Coach Lane Kiffin, who afterward folded his arms into his chest, stared at the stadium’s wet green carpet, and spoke softly.
“It seems like we gave up 1,000 yards,” said Kiffin. “I know we won and all that, but we can’t play like this.”
It was that kind of opener, some good, some bad, all of it weird, the Trojans beginning 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 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.”
Well, he’s still that way, the Trojan season beginning as a wackiness in progress.
There were some brilliant moments here, but there were also some boneheaded ones.
Kiffin wanted the Trojans to be tough, and they indeed gained 246 yards on the ground. But he wanted them to be smart, and the defense was as confused as anything that Pete Carroll rolled out there last season.
It turns out the Trojans did not know the Warriors would be running the “Pistol” offense — a spread attack in which the running back lines up behind the quarterback — until defensive boss Monte Kiffin saw it on the news Wednesday night.
“So we spent all morning changing things and preparing for it,” said Lane Kiffin. “I guess that shows we should never watch the news, because the preparation didn’t do any good.”
Kiffin wanted the Trojans to be classy, and generally they were, losing the constant celebrations, toning down the swagger, gently handing touchdown balls to an official without the posing. But Kiffin also wanted the Trojans to be disciplined on the field, and they failed there miserably, with 100 yards of penalties leading to two Warrior scores while stifling a couple of drives.
Fitting for a season that is beyond prediction, the Trojans were both very good and very bad, and sometimes both things occurring in the same person, and that would be, of course, Kiffin.
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, celebrating mostly with fist pumps. But then he mitigated some of that with a string of early two-point conversion attempts that summoned some familiar you-arrogant-Trojans boos.
“I wanted to send our team a message about being aggressive and going for it,” Kiffin said.
That message was received, particularly after the Trojans scored late in the first half and the team gathered in a big circle on the sideline. Unlike in the past, though, the meeting wasn’t for taunting or celebrating. It was for 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 were all really trying, and on this first long night of a long autumn, that would have to be enough.