Defensive Nightmare Spoils Kiffin’s Opener
So if I had told you USC scored 49 points, Matt Barkley threw for five touchdowns, Ronald Johnson scored four times and Marc Tyler ran for 154 yards, you would have said it was a dream opener for new USC coach Lane Kiffin. Right?
Well, all those things happened, and it still was almost a nightmare for Kiffin and the Trojans in Hawaii.
The culprit was the sloppy-tackling, no-pass rush defense. And on that long plane ride home to L.A., Lane’s revered dad, Monte, the team’s defensive guru, certainly will have a lot of explaining to do.
The 49-36 wobbler of a victory was anything but a sign of resurgence at USC. Hawaii, with a team full of athletes not deemed good enough to play in the Pac-10, ran up a shocking 588 yards, 459 of them passing. And that was with three different quarterbacks.
If you hadn’t known better, you would have thought those were the Oregon Ducks, not the Warriors from Honolulu. Before he was knocked out of the game in the third period, quarterback Bryant Moniz looked exactly like ex-Duck Jeremiah Masoli.
He scrambled beautifully and everything he threw up there was caught, with the hometown receivers running through the Trojans’ secondary like so much poi running through a tourist’s fork.
Here is the biggest question of this game for USC: Was that revolting display of non-tackling a result of Kiffin’s decision to refrain from contact for most of fall camp? Or is it a real indication of the inexperience and talent level of this current team?
My guess is that it’s probably a combination of both, and those of us who were projecting a 10-win season probably should ratchet down those numbers a bit.
If Hawaii, with little or no big-time recruits, can rummage through the Trojans like that, what happens when they play Stanford and Oregon and Oregon State, not to mention Washington, Arizona and — gulp! — even UCLA?
The third string Warriors quarterback was firing TD bombs in the fourth quarter Thursday night, and back on the West Coast, you could almost hear Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Washington’s Jake Locker licking their chops in anticipation.
The funny thing about all this is that the USC offense was terrific. It was Barkley’s best, mistake-free game as a Trojan. Ronald Johnson with three TD catches and an 89-yard punt return for a score is off to an All-American start. Marc Tyler demonstrated why Kiffin picked him to start at tailback, running with both power and deception. And the offensive line was clearly overwhelming the smaller hometown team.
But afterwards, it wasn’t the flashy Trojans’ offense everybody was talking about. It was the shoddy defense. What happened to that supposedly dominant unit up front? It failed to produce a sack until midway into the third period, rarely providing much of a pass rush and never forcing anything close to a turnover.
The linebackers and the secondary, meanwhile, were completely undressed by Hawaii’s spread offense. Part of it is the gimmick of the run-and-shoot, with Moniz and the other two quarterbacks throwing quick passes before the opposing linemen could get close. But even when they took normal five step drops, the Trojans couldn’t get to them.
For the most part, the elder Kiffin played it straight, with very little blitzing. But still, USC’s athletes were so much bigger, stronger and faster, it’s difficult to believe they couldn’t get to the quarterback.
But they couldn’t, and when Moniz and Co. got the ball downfield, nobody in a white shirt could tackle. Tiny true freshman Nickell Robey had a discouraging first game, but his buddies out there weren’t much help.
Even the new head coach had his shaky moments. Early in the fourth period, the Trojans led 42-23, but Hawaii was still moving the ball down field at will. So you had to wonder why Kiffin decided to pull Barkley and much of the first unit and insert Mitch Mustain and the backups at that poiint.
It could have gone down as one of the bonehead moves in recent USC history if Moniz hadn’t had his bell rung, suffering an apparent head injury that forced him out of the game. As it was, the Warriors, with their second and third string quarterbacks, still closed to within 42-30, finally forcing USC to hang on, 49-36.
Trust me, Pete Carroll never would have pulled Barkley that early. Or don’t you remember him allowing John David Booty to stay in the infamous game with Stanford three years ago with a broken finger on his passing hand and Mark Sanchez on the sideline?
Carroll almost always waited until the final two or three minutes to put the subs in, no matter how many points the Trojans were ahead. Kiffin, it seemed, wanted to reward Mustain for hanging in all this time, instead of transferring. That was a nice thought, but it could have been disastrous.
A loss in the this game would have been exactly that. Fortunately for Kiffiin’s kids, their offense had enough skill and power to run off 49 points. And to think, now they get to welcome Dillon Baxter, who could be the most exciting player on the whole roster.
If you like offensive orgies, this team could be a lot of fun to watch.
Just get ready to cover your eyes whenever the Trojans are on defense.
— STEVE BISHEFF