Lane Kiffin no longer makes the bold proclamations that made him persona non grata in Southeastern Conference country.
He chooses his words carefully. Appears to think hard before he speaks.
But USC’s coach remains a provocateur.
During Saturday’s 50-16 victory over Washington State, Kiffin had the Trojans open with a no-huddle offense.
USC continued to show multiple shifting formations for its conversions after touchdowns.
And with a possible tailback controversy brewing, Kiffin put fullback Stanley Havili in that spot for the first play.
Much like the hue of the light purple dress shirt he wore to and from the game, Kiffin’s intent was subtle: Agitate Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian by giving him even more to think about.
Kiffin could afford to.
The game at sparsely filled Martin Stadium was the last of what for all practical purposes were USC’s exhibition games.
The teams USC has defeated — Hawaii, Virginia, Minnesota and Washington State — were not the so-called “directional” opponents that other traditional powers utilize as preconference punching bags. But they allowed USC to traverse a relatively smooth road to a 4-0 record.
Now comes Washington, 16th-ranked Stanford, California and fifth-ranked Oregon — Cal the only team that did not embarrass the Trojans last season.
Sarkisian, of course, was Kiffin’s former running mate and co-offensive coordinator with the Trojans. Huskies defensive coordinator Nick Holt also was on the same Trojans staff.
Kiffin acknowledged familiarity with Washington’s schemes and said, “There was a lot of focus to Game 5" in the off-season.
“We’ll see if it pays off,” he said, “because we’ve spent a ton of time on these guys.”
The Trojans are feeling surer of themselves after playing what players described as their most complete game of the season against Washington State (1-3).
But a complete half is more accurate.
USC committed three turnovers in the first two quarters.
Quarterback Matt Barkley had two passes intercepted for the second consecutive game. Senior tailback Allen Bradford fumbled for the second game in a row.
“We could have had 70 points, I think, if those turnovers had gone the other way,” said Barkley, who passed for three touchdowns.
As it was, USC never was forced to punt and produced more points and amassed more yards (613) than it had in a game all season. Freshman cornerback Nickell Robey gave up a long touchdown pass on the first series, but he also had two of the Trojans’ three interceptions, including one he returned for a touchdown. The Trojans also blocked punt and extra-point attempts en route to their largest margin of victory.
Havili played a pivotal role, answering Washington State’s early touchdown with a 59-yard scoring run on USC’s first play from scrimmage. He also scored the Trojans’ final touchdown on a fourth-quarter pass play.
USC led 28-13 at halftime and then scored on three consecutive drives in the second half to put the game out of reach. The only drama was whether the Trojans would give up another late touchdown to put a damper on the victory and a grimace on Kiffin’s face.
But Washington State got only a fourth-quarter field goal.
That suited Kiffin fine.
“Our goal was to come away 4-0, come away healthy by playing a lot of players and get an idea of our roster,” he said. “I think we did that.”
So, bring on Washington, which beat the Trojans last season in Seattle and had an open date on Saturday.
“We’re ready to play Washington already,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said.
That, of course, remains to be seen.
Kiffin demurred when asked if the Huskies would be the Trojans’ best opponent to date.
“We lost to Washington last year,” he said without the slightest trace of a grin or a smirk. “So I know that much.”