USC’s lack of discipline is worrisome flaw as penalties mount

Look past the cascade of records quarterback Matt Barkley and wide receiver Robert Woods set Saturday in USC’s 50-6 rout of Colorado at the Coliseum and you’ll see why the Trojans had some concerns after what should have been a purely happy romp through an overwhelmed secondary.

Look beyond the congratulatory videos featuring former Trojans and other local stars to honor Barkley, who broke the Pac-12 career touchdown record, and Woods, who became the Trojans’ career receptions leader, and consider that USC was assessed 10 penalties for 90 yards, continuing a season-long pattern. Which leads to another worry: starting defensive tackle Leonard Williams was ejected for a post-whistle punch during the second quarter, which will be reviewed by Pac-12 officials and could result in the impressive freshman being suspended for next week’s game at Arizona.

Look beneath the surface and you’ll see the penalties as nagging but genuine flaws in a statistically dominant performance. Coach Lane Kiffin saw them clearly and took dramatic steps to make his displeasure known.

“It was just really upsetting,” said Kiffin, who gathered players before they left the field at halftime and barked at them in public view.

“It just really was about Trojan football and we weren’t doing that. We looked really undisciplined and it looked really bad. And I felt bad for our fans, I felt bad for our former players. We talk all the time our guys about all our players that love watching these guys play…. It just looked really bad and it was also taking away from a very special day.”

The lack of discipline didn’t ruin the day. It couldn’t have, not when Barkley was 19 for 20 and tied a school record with six touchdown passes, and Woods set a school record with four touchdown receptions. But it gnawed at Kiffin.

“That’s not who we want to be,” he said. “That’s not the product we want to put out there to represent the university.”

It bothered many of his players too, and with reason.

They had gotten away with averaging 10 penalties a game in their first six games and matched that Saturday, remaining among the most penalized major college teams. They will have to address improving their self-control before they begin a five-game stretch against opponents who were a collective 27-7 before Arizona (3-3) played a late game Saturday against Washington.

Safety T.J. McDonald said Williams’ punch was retaliation for one of the Buffaloes spitting in his face. “So I knew he was angry,” said McDonald, who counseled his younger teammate on the sideline before Williams was banished to the locker room.

“You’ve got to keep your composure at that point,” McDonald said. “You’re only hurting the team. That’s all I told him.”

Linebacker Tony Burnett said Kiffin’s message was similar.

“He wants us to play good, disciplined football and as players we want to play good, disciplined football so we have to cut down on the penalties,” Burnett said. “We’ve got to make smarter decisions.

“We’ve got to understand that when the whistle is blown, the play is over and that’s something I can take up with my teammates too, just talk to those guys and let them know that hey, we’re coming up on a rough patch of games. We can’t afford these penalties. We’ve got to play more disciplined football.

“You’ve got to understand that certain things are going to happen and people are going to test you in a game and you’ve got to understand that you can’t react to them. You’ve got to play Trojan football. If someone does something to you that you don’t like, do it when it’s legal. Come between the next two whistles and get back and make a play or something.”

They made enough good plays for this game to never have been in doubt, and for Barkley and the previously inconsistent offense to gain confidence.

“I think we have a better feeling in our stomachs after this win, at least from the offensive side,” Barkley said. “We’re always going to say there’s something to correct, and the penalties and being more disciplined is one of those things, but we put points on the board early and we moved the ball.”

Sustain that, and these next five games might not be such a difficult stretch. Throw in more discipline and it could be easier still.