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Insider

Opener leaves questions for Trojans

8/31/2013

When you’re finished analyzing and reanalyzing the opener, criticizing the young quarterbacks here and the feeble offensive line there, praising the energy and aggressiveness of the new defensive scheme and questioning the overly conservative play calling of the head coach, the bottom line is this -- that was Hawaii on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

That was a team ranked as low as 110th in the country by some preseason publications. That was a group expected to be your basic opening-game punching bag.

The fact it didn’t turn out that way -- that USC struggled to sustain blocks on the smaller, less-talented Rainbow Warriors, that it managed to score only one offensive touchdown in the first 30 minutes, that it actually fell behind by the baseball score of 5-3 at one wobbly point in that strange first half -- doesn’t exactly bode well for the immediate future.

Be afraid, Trojans fans. Be very afraid.

If Hawaii can do that, what will Stanford, Notre Dame, Arizona State and, yes, UCLA do? Shoot, if Norm Chow’s team can do that, who’s to say what will happen this coming Saturday against Mike Leach’s shoot-from-the-hip Washington State team?

The nicest way to put it is that Thursday night’s sluggish 30-13 performance in Honolulu wasn’t exactly a huge confidence builder for the rest of 2013.

Was it all gloom and doom? Hardly. The front seven of Clancy Pendergast’s new 5-2 defense was outstanding all night long. Seriously, Devon Kennard, Leonard Williams, George Uko and Co. were bringing it for four quarters. When considering that Morgan Breslin didn’t even play, there should be many more sacks and turnovers in the coming weeks.

The problem, of course, is the cornerbacks were as vulnerable as expected, especially once starters Kevon Seymour and Anthony Brown were injured. The Trojans were lucky they were facing young, struggling quarterback Taylor Graham, who missed numerous open receivers on plays that could have resulted in touchdowns or near-touchdowns.

Things will get considerably tougher when the smoother, more-polished Pac-12 quarterbacks start cranking it up.

Considering the way converted safety Dion Bailey and true freshman Su'a Cravens played alongside him, don’t be surprised if starting safety Josh Shaw, who is probably the team’s best cover guy, is shifted back to cornerback permanently.

Offensively, quarterback remains the overriding story for this team, and the summer-long puzzle was definitely not solved Thursday night. Cody Kessler looked like a kid playing his first college game on the road. The self-assured, confident quarterback we had watched in practice looked anything but in this one. Of course, it didn’t help that he rarely had time to throw. The one time he was given adequate protection, he found Nelson Agholor with a 19-yard touchdown pass.

Give Kiffin some credit. He gave the quarterback who played best in training camp the start. But now what does he do? Max Wittek wasn’t overwhelming in relief, although he did manage to avoid turning the ball over.

How weird was it that Marqise Lee, of all people, would prove to be an impediment to both quarterbacks? He dropped a Kessler fourth-down pass that could have been a huge confidence boost to him early, then had a perfectly-thrown, 60-yard Wittek bomb hit him in the chest and bounce away in the fourth quarter.

Don’t worry about Lee. He is still the best player on this football team. But on a warm, August night in so-called paradise, even he didn’t seem to have his game together.

The disturbing part is that 2013 started much the same way 2012 ended, with Kiffin’s team stumbling badly out of the gate. For whatever reason, the Trojans haven’t been playing well in the first quarter for this coach.

In the last five regular season games a year ago, USC was outscored 58-10 in the first 15 minutes. The scoreboard wasn’t as lopsided early Thursday night, but the Trojans still came out listless and out of snyc offensively.

Coming back to the comfortable confines of the Coliseum should help. It usually does, especially when the opponent isn’t particularly imposing.

But now Kiffin has to play Pick-A-Quarterback again. Which way will he go? It’s difficult to say, but my guess is whichever young passer he chooses, he will try to keep the pressure off with a running game that flashed some promise in Hawaii. The same offensive line that couldn’t keep people off Kessler and Wittek somehow found a way to block better for Tre Madden and Justin Davis.

For a team desperately searching for its offensive identity, that was one of the few encouraging signs on opening night.

Besides, things should definitely get better from here, right? If nothing else, that should be the Trojans’ motto for the present.

Because the truth is that right now the future is a little too scary to contemplate.