Coming into the 2013 season, it was hard to imagine the USC home games against Boston College and Utah State becoming critical, must-win games.
Yet after the stunning loss at home to Washington State last weekend, that is exactly what the next two games have become.
Not only are they games that the Trojans, and coach Lane Kiffin, need to win, they almost more importantly need to play well. To be more specific, they need to play well on the offensive side of the ball, particularly the passing game.
Kiffin took the needed step on Monday, naming a full-time starter at quarterback as redshirt sophomore Cody Kessler will be handed the reins in the hope of curing whatever ails the offense. Of course, there are many USC fans who will say that nothing Kessler does will work unless there is someone other than Kiffin calling the plays. That’s all part of what makes these next two games so important.
Judging by the crowd reaction last weekend to the Trojans' performance, it’s evident that these are defining moments for Kiffin. His team has come out flat in the passing game so far this season as he attempted to juggle the quarterback spot without suffering a loss in the process. That didn’t work. The run game has shown well and the defense – which Kiffin leaves largely to Clancy Pendergast – has certainly been a bright spot. But something is missing overall, and the teams coming into town are good enough to take advantage of that if the problem isn’t fixed.
Granted, Boston College and Utah State are a combined 3-1 so far but they aren’t going to be confused for world-beaters at this point, and that’s why most USC fans looked at the early part of the schedule as basically a good warmup for the big, three-game stretch coming up against Arizona State, Arizona and Notre Dame.
That was until the Trojans threw for 54 yards against the Cougars in the loss. There was something about the way it happened – the reliance on sideways passes or the seeming lack of imagination – that really resonated with the Coliseum crowd, and it didn’t take long after the first bubble screen for the boo birds to come out.
It’s hard to process the futility of that night, to think that Marqise Lee could be held to a total of 27 receiving yards in an entire game. It took him about three seconds to reach that total in the season opener last year against Hawaii. But the numbers don’t lie. At least Lee made seven catches – even if most of them were short passes that had him fighting for any extra yardage – think about Nelson Agholor not getting a single catch.
No matter what the solution is, Kiffin and his coaches need to figure it out in a hurry. Boston College comes into the Coliseum with a 2-0 record and the fourth-ranked rusher in the country in Andre Williams, who ran for a career-high 204 yards last week in the victory over Wake Forest. The Eagles are in their first season under coach Steve Addazio and they have already matched their victory total from the 2012 season. Utah State has a new coach in Matt Wells along with a quarterback in Chuckie Keeton who has thrown for more than 300 yards in five of his last seven games.
In other words, these are teams that are just as capable as Washington State, and everyone knows how that turned out. There is a real sense of urgency for the Trojans, and it’s not just about getting things going for the rest of the season -- it’s about the future of the head coach. Without improvement in the passing game or signs of more life from the offense, the Coliseum crowd will surely voice more displeasure. If there is a loss in either of these two games, well, I’m guessing the home fans will let their feelings be known about that, too.