USC Trojans: Max Wittek

Players coming and going at USC 

January, 30, 2014
The news came in twos this week for the USC Trojans involving a pair of players, one leaving and one coming, both with two years of eligibility left to pursue their college football dreams.

The first came early in the week when it was confirmed that junior college defensive tackle Claude Pelon was enrolled in school for the spring semester. Pelon had committed to USC last month but had not yet qualified to transfer when the semester started on January 13. At the time, USC coach Steve Sarkisian said it was a matter of finishing up one class and that Pelon was expected soon.

[+] EnlargeMax Wittek
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY SportsMax Wittek's decision to leave USC isn't a complete shock, and it gives him a good opportunity to succeed at another program.
The fact that Pelon is now confirmed is important news for a defensive front that will need to replace a two-year starter in the middle in George Uko, who left school early for the NFL draft. Pelon offers a 6-foot-5, 285-pound frame along with two years of junior college experience. He had 9.5 tackles for loss in 2013 at Mesa (Ariz.) Community College.
With the news that the Trojans received a verbal commitment over the weekend from one of the top quarterbacks in the Class of 2015, there was automatically a lot of message board speculation about the state of the USC depth chart at the position in future years.

There is no doubt that the newest future Trojan -- Ricky Town from Ventura (Calif.) St. Bonaventure -- will one day play into the mix for the signal-caller job, as will Max Browne and Jalen Greene. For the more immediate future, incumbent starter Cody Kessler heads up the position while veteran Max Wittek, with two starts under his belt, has to be considered as well.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has the experience, but new USC coach Steve Sarkisian said all jobs are up for grabs in the spring, including the QB.
What was interesting about some of the discussions were the thoughts on Kessler being in competition for his job now, or even in a potential senior season. Even though Kessler put up solid numbers in his sophomore season while guiding the Trojans through a season full of adversity, there were still plenty of USC fans who made it clear of their desire for Browne to get a shot at the job sooner rather than later.

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USC gets relief with Town commitment 

January, 25, 2014
For USC head coach Steve Sarkisian, this weekend was supposed to be about sealing the deal with some top targets who were officially visiting campus, but it quickly transformed into so much more.

Most of the focus centered on a group of highly touted prospects from the 2014 class, including John Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco), as the Trojans hosted a large group of recruits with less than two weeks remaining until national signing day. Yet, the buzz shifted toward the future as Sarkisian reached into the 2015 class to make perhaps his biggest splash since arriving from Washington, securing a verbal commitment from Ricky Town (Ventura, Calif./St. Bonaventure), the No. 2-rated pocket passer who decommitted from Alabama earlier in the day.

Consider it a major coup for USC, which made Town its top priority at quarterback and managed to flip him in a short period of time.

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Pac-12's best of 2013

January, 14, 2014
Today we put a bow on the 2013 season (almost -- a few more review posts are coming up, and then probably a few more after that). But today across the blogosphere, we’re categorizing some of the top moments and individuals from the Pac-12 season. These are set in stone and in no way open to argument or interpretation.

Best coach: Arizona State's Todd Graham was voted as the league’s coach of the year by his peers. And it’s hard to argue with that, given the fact that the Sun Devils had the best league record and won their division. But you can’t discount the job of the L.A. coaches (interim or otherwise). Ed Orgeron did a phenomenal job in relief at USC before Steve Sarkisian was hired, and Jim Mora shepherded his team through a difficult time early.

Best player, offense: Ka’Deem Carey was named the Pac-12 offensive player of the year. And the Pac-12 blog agrees. Certainly, cases can be made for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota, who was on the Heisman Trophy track before being derailed by a knee injury. And there is the debate between Carey and Washington running back Bishop Sankey, which will rage until the end of days.

Best player, defense: The coaches went with Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton. And there’s nothing wrong with that selection. But cases certainly can be made for outside linebackers Trent Murphy (Stanford) and Anthony Barr (UCLA).

Best moment: Lots of them. Shocking upsets (see below) and stellar individual performances dusted the landscape of the 2013 Pac-12 season. But in terms of moments that were seared into our memories, it’s tough not to think about UCLA’s come-from-behind win at Nebraska way back on Sept. 14, following the death of Nick Pasquale. Specifically, Anthony Jefferson recovering a red zone fumble and then sprinting off the field to give the ball to Mora, followed by a big hug. It was as authentic and genuine a moment as you’ll find in sports.

[+] EnlargeKodi Whitfield
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesStanford's Kodi Whitfield had a highlight touchdown grab against UCLA.
Biggest upset: Take your pick between Utah topping Stanford or Arizona topping Oregon. Both were road losses for the favorites and both shook up the national and league landscape. Granted, Utah’s win over Stanford came earlier in the season, and early-season losses are easier to rebound from. Oregon’s loss to Arizona came at the end and cost the Ducks all kinds of postseason possibilities.

Best workhorse performance: It’s a tie between Stanford’s Tyler Gaffney and Carey -- both of whom put in the work in their teams’ victories over Oregon. Carey rushed for 206 yards and four touchdowns on 48 carries; Gaffney carried 45 times for 157 yards and a touchdown.

Best play: One of the most subjective categories, for sure, but Kodi Whitfield’s one-handed touchdown catch against UCLA was nothing short of spectacular. He elevated between two Bruins defenders and backhanded the ball out of the air for a 30-yard touchdown. Something about UCLA-Stanford brings out the one-handed catches. Recall in 2011, Andrew Luck hauled in a one-handed catch against the Bruins, and a few plays later, Coby Fleener snagged a one-handed dart from Luck for a touchdown.

Best performance, offense: Again, wildly subjective. Take your pick from Ty Montgomery’s five-touchdown day against Cal, Marion Grice’s four touchdowns against USC or Wisconsin, or Myles Jack’s four touchdowns against Washington. Brandin Cooks had a pretty nice day against Cal with his 232 receiving yards. There were games with seven touchdown tosses from Mariota and Taylor Kelly. Connor Halliday’s losing effort against Colorado State was spectacular. In terms of impact, it’s hard not to go back to Carey’s effort against Oregon.

Best performance, defense: As in every other category here, plenty to go around. But think way back to Washington State’s win over USC. Damante Horton had a 70-yard interception return that tied the game at 7-7 in the second quarter. Then, after Andrew Furney’s 41-yard field goal put the Cougars ahead 10-7 with 3:15 left in the game, Horton picked off Max Wittek, which allowed WSU to run out the clock.

Five things: USC at Colorado

November, 23, 2013
Five things to watch as No. 23 USC (8-3, 5-2 Pac-12) travels to Colorado (4-6, 1-6) on Saturday for a 6:30 p.m. PT kickoff:

1. “Get through it” game: There are the usual questions this week about the possibility of this game being a letdown for the Trojans. The team is coming off an emotional victory over Stanford and there is the looming prospect next week of a matchup with crosstown rival UCLA that could have some very high stakes. Sandwiched between those two games is Colorado, an opponent with a single conference win this season, in a cold, nighttime environment in front of what is expected to be a sparse crowd. Ed Orgeron says his players will not let down because they trust the process of preparing for the game and they know what is still possible for this season.

2. Attack mode: The Buffs are ranked last or next-to-last in the conference in all four major defensive categories (scoring, pass, rush, total). They have the fewest sacks and are giving up the most yards per rush. That means Cody Kessler should have time to run the offense and the Trojans should be able to run when they need to. Kessler has been efficient lately and is putting up good numbers, but with these weather conditions, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Clay Helton pay special attention to the run game. Regardless, the Trojans will look to score early and often to take control of the game quickly and get the starters to the sidelines.

3. Don’t let Rich get richer: Colorado wide receiver Paul Richardson is a legitimate big-play guy, a player who is very familiar to members of the USC program. He played Pop Warner football with Dion Bailey, was a high school teammate of Marqise Lee and trained in the offseason with Josh Shaw. It will be Shaw who is charged with the assignment of making sure that Richardson – who ranks No. 4 in the nation in receiving yards per game - doesn’t have the kind of night that would allow Colorado to stay in the game.

4. Say hello to reserves: If the Trojans can get a comfortable lead, look for Orgeron to make sure the reserves get plenty of playing time. It could be another opportunity for Max Wittek to show off his arm, for De’Von Flournoy to get a few catches as his career winds down or for Abe Markowitz to get some well-deserved reps at center. On defense, look for players such as Jabari Ruffin, Scott Starr, Quinton Powell and Michael Hutchings to show what is waiting for them as the future of the USC linebacker group.

5. Keep the Orgeron train moving: There is a lot of momentum for the Trojans right now under Orgeron and USC fans aren’t looking for that to end in Boulder. In fact, they are looking for the train to pick up speed on the way to the showdown next weekend in the Coliseum. The Trojans have shown steady improvement each week under Orgeron to the point that they are playing their best football of the year at the right time. And, as has been thoroughly discussed in the national media this week, Orgeron has put himself squarely in the mix as a candidate for the full-time job.

Notebook: Run sets up pass for Trojans

September, 17, 2013
One of the most compelling stats from the Boston College game for the USC offense is the fact that the Trojans were able to achieve such good balance on a day when they put up over 500 yards of total offense.

USC ended the day with 521 yards of offense -- 257 on the ground and 264 through the air. But what makes it even more interesting is the fact that those 264 passing yards came on only 19 attempts. The Trojans don’t need to throw the ball 40 times a game to put up big numbers; the stats will come if the run game is setting the tone and if they are spreading the ball around with the right play calls.

[+] EnlargeJustin Davis
Chris Williams/Icon SMIUSC's Justin Davis ran for 96 yards and a touchdown vs. Boston College.
USC coach Lane Kiffin has done a commendable job so far this year of sticking with the commitment to the run as the Trojans have averaged more than 43 rushing attempts per game. It helps when the attempts are producing good yardage and that has been the case with the Trojans averaging 4.5 yards per rush, a number that figures to grow as the backs get more experience and the offensive line continues to gel. Think about it: the Trojans are running the ball well with two backs who had never carried the ball in a college game prior to this season.

On Saturday, the Trojans also came out and did a good job of spreading the ball around. The first six passes that Cody Kessler completed went to six different receivers. By the time the second quarter rolled around, the Trojans had shown the run and the ability to use other players so the Eagles decided to use single coverage on Marqise Lee. That was just a simple Kessler toss to the flat, Lee made one guy miss and that was all she wrote for an 80-yard touchdown.

What’s ironic is that while Lee might be the most explosive player in college football, the Trojans are actually very effective when his catches are limited. USC is 5-0 in games when Lee has two catches and 14-9 in all other Lee games. I doubt Kiffin is going to use that stat as an excuse to start reducing Lee’s touches but it shows how successful the team can be when Lee isn’t forced to carry too much of the load.

Dynamic duo: The Trojans couldn’t have asked for a much better start from the tailback duo of Tre Madden and Justin Davis. Both players have been impressive in, as mentioned above, their first college action at tailback. Madden has been the lead performer with his powerful yet smooth style that has allowed him to go for over 100 yards in each of the first three games to open the season. The last USC tailback to do that was Marcus Allen in his 1981 Heisman-winning season. The true freshman Davis is averaging more than 6.5 yards per carry with 172 yards on 26 carries. It will be interesting to see what will happen when projected starter Silas Redd returns from injury. The latest depth chart released on Sunday night for the Trojans shows Madden as the starter with no “or” designation next to his name, a clear sign that Kiffin is content with what he’s seen so far.

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Lane Kiffin conference call highlights

September, 16, 2013
Here are some selected quotes from USC head coach Lane Kiffin’s Sunday night conference call following the Trojans’ 35-7 victory over Boston College.

Opening comments:

“It was just really a great day for our players and fans after the week that they’d been through. I just really was excited for them, and I really saw a lot of emotion in the players throughout the game. … As I said after the game, I really feel like the decisions made in January -- our staff decisions, schematical decisions and practice decisions -- are paying off.”

On the performance of the USC defense:

“Our first defense, they go two weeks in a row now where they’ve only given up one field goal. You really can’t play much better than that.”

On the play of the USC running backs:

“I thought all the backs ran really well. All four backs averaged over 5 1/2 yards a carry each. Justin [Davis] had two really special runs. Unfortunately, he had another long run that was called back on a penalty. Otherwise, he’s well over 100 [yards] on the day, and over 10 yards a carry. And Tre [Madden], three games in a row over one hundred yards -- you can’t start much better than that. Unfortunately, he put the ball on the ground for the first time this year toward the end of the second quarter. Luckily we got that back and we were able to not turn the ball over the entire day.”

On the improvement of the USC offense on third downs (5-of-10 on third-down conversions) against Boston College, and the play of quarterback Cody Kessler:

“We started slow again on third downs, but really had a good second half with that, and that came from the efficiency of running the ball well and completing balls. You know, when you complete … whatever that is … almost 90 percent of your passes, that’s going to help in those situations. It’s kind of amazing that [Kessler’s] first pass was incomplete, his last was incomplete, and he completed the 15 in between. … So, really a good day by him, and then Max Wittek came in and played well.”

Kiffin’s thoughts on the performance of the offensive line:

“There is some good stuff going on up there. The left tackle (Chad Wheeler) played really well in his third college game, and he’s going to be a special player. … Max Tuerk played really well. Max and Marcus [Martin] had actually been really sick the last part of the week there, including during the game. So, they kind of sucked it up and went out there and played on a hot day, and it was good to see. And Kevin Graf played well too.”

On where the offensive line is in terms of their cohesiveness and communication-- there were two instances where Boston College defenders appeared to come in untouched due to a breakdown up front:

“Both were communication issues on the right side. We’d like to play perfect, but we didn’t.”

On the strong production of the USC ground attack so far this season, particularly with last season’s leading rusher, Silas Redd, sidelined with an injury:

“I think it’s strange … if you would have said that really the only two running backs with experience, not just [Redd] but D.J. Morgan -- neither of those guys have been available to play for us. I think it speaks to those other guys working hard, stepping up and seizing the opportunity. And hopefully Silas will play this week.”

On the status of Darreus Rogers, who appeared to be injured against Boston College:

“Darreus wasn’t able to finish the game. We hope that he plays this week for us. De’Von Flournoy stepped up and had a catch in there, Victor Blackwell played a few snaps, so that’s what we got.”

On the Trojans’ 10 penalties on Saturday:

“I thought we did a really good job for the most part of not having penalties, especially the week before. We unfortunately had some yesterday … some poor decisions. We made some poor decisions sometimes there on holding penalties and then on two roughing-the-passers. Those are big penalties … we’ve got to fix that.”

On the impact that running backs coach Tommie Robinson has had in his first season at USC:

“I think he’s done a really good job with a very inexperienced group -- the two experienced guys have been down the whole season. To get those guys ready to play as well as they’re doing, and all of those guys going over 5 yards a carry in the game … he’s done a great job with them. “

When a group is playing as well as the USC defense has been as of late, is it difficult to keep them motivated at times? And what does the coaching staff do to keep them on track?

“We stay really hard on them. There is stuff to improve on. They’re going to have a cut-up film ready for them at 6:30 in the morning when they come in here to talk to them about. … We haven’t really been challenged yet that much comparable to what’s coming. Coming down the road there’s some high-octane offenses coming in, and it starts this Saturday. This is a huge test. This is a really, really good football team coming in here, and a great dynamic quarterback.”

On what Utah State quarterback Chuckie Keeton brings to the table:

“He does everything. I think he’s like the guy up in Seattle. You can’t tackle him, he runs around, makes every throw, doesn’t seem to get rattled, plays great in big games … he’s just a real special player.”

Kessler’s path has happened before 

September, 16, 2013
So the Cody Kessler who looked so cool, confident and under control throughout training camp finally showed up in the third week of the season.

Amazing, huh? Well, maybe not.

What happened to Kessler is remarkably similar to what another aspiring, young quarterback went through at USC in 2003. You might have heard of him. His name is Matt Leinart.

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Roundtable: Fixing the passing game 

September, 12, 2013
The biggest on-field concern for the Trojans right now is the passing game. What needs to happen for the passing game to get on track vs. Boston College?

Garry Paskwietz

From a play-calling standpoint, the offense needs to include elements which play to Cody’s strengths. For the past two games, Lane Kiffin has said the play calling didn’t need to change depending upon which quarterback was in the game. This does not help either player, or the offense. Cody Kessler and Max Wittek are not identical quarterbacks who do everything equally well. Both players have things they do better and now that Kessler has been named the starter, Kiffin would do well to identify those situations which can help him succeed.

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Well, the decision has been made. Cody Kessler will be the starting quarterback for the USC Trojans on a full-time basis beginning Saturday against Boston College.

This was a decision whose time had come, and only time will tell if it came too late. USC coach Lane Kiffin tried to walk a high-wire act through the first two games by alternating quarterbacks in the hopes of finding a clear starter, but the results have not been impressive. In fact, the experiment produced the lowest passing totals the Trojans have seen in 15 years.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsCody Kessler has been less than impressive so far, but he officially was named the starter Monday.
The Trojans threw the ball for 54 yards against the Washington State Cougars in a 10-7 loss last weekend, with the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner Marqise Lee accounting for only 27 yards. The receiver on the other side of Lee -- explosive sophomore Nelson Agholor -- didn't have any catches at all. It was all part of an anemic offensive night for the Trojans that resulted in boos from the Coliseum crowd and calls for the firing of the coach.

You have to remember, this is a coach in Kiffin who prides himself on his offensive play-calling skills. There had been some question in the offseason about whether he needed to turn the play calling over to another coach on the staff, but Kiffin elected to keep those duties "in the best interest of the team."

USC athletic director Pat Haden even pointed to Kiffin's "dynamic" play calling as a key reason the coach has had Haden's vocal support. Through the first two games, and with the struggles of the offense, Kiffin has not exactly made Haden look good on that one.

Since there is no indication that Kiffin is looking to make a change on play calling, the one major thing he could have done to attempt to turn the tide from what happened against Washington State is to finally name a starter at quarterback. It remains to be seen how much this decision will help, but it was pretty clear the indecision was not helping either Kessler or Max Wittek, or the offense as a whole.

There's a reason the quarterback spot is seen as such a valuable position within the offense, and much of that comes from a point of leadership. The quarterback is the one calling the plays in the huddle, the player all the other players are looking in the eye to see the confidence he projects. If that quarterback is worried that a mistake means he will be coming out of the game, or if he feels a need to press because his reps are limited, the results can be damaging to an offense. In the case of the Trojans so far this year, that certainly appears to have been the case.

Now that a starter has been named, however, there is one important thing that Kiffin needs to do. He needs to trust his quarterback. He needs to make sure Kessler knows he is the guy. It has been noticeable so far this year that Kiffin hasn't allowed Kessler to do much in the way of downfield passing. Kessler showed through spring ball and fall camp scrimmages that he has the ability and arm strength to make the throws, and Kiffin needs to put him in those positions. Nobody is saying Kessler needs to air it out all over the field, but he shouldn't be limited as much as we've seen in the first two games.

The stakes are high on this one for Kiffin. The USC fans expressed their feelings last week loud and clear, and that reaction gives a certain suddenness to the next two games. Both games are at home against opponents the Trojans are expected to beat, and the Coliseum crowd will be watching closely, because their patience clearly has worn thin. Kiffin needs this move to work, and work quickly, in order to validate his handling of the situation. As if Cody Kessler didn't have enough to worry about with his new job.

Kiffin's decisions are failing USC

September, 9, 2013
Lane KiffinRichard Mackson/US PresswireBy maintaining play-calling duties, Lane Kiffin has put himself in the crosshairs.
In the spring of 2003, Pete Carroll decided that Matt Leinart should be named USC's starting quarterback over Matt Cassel. In the spring of 2008, he decided that Mark Sanchez should be named the Trojans' starter over Mitch Mustain and Aaron Corp.

While Carroll's dynastic run at USC was notoriously about non-stop competition, he also understood team dynamics. He believed that it was important to name a starting quarterback as soon as possible. When he saw separation, he believed a starter should be "anointed." And, yes, that was the term he used.

"Part of the reason for naming [Sanchez] is to see [leadership] come out," Carroll told me in 2008. "He wasn't able to show it. He hadn't been anointed yet."

That formal anointing allowed the quarterback to gain and then demonstrate confidence. He became the offensive leader.

In the spring of 2011, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, formerly Carroll's offensive coordinator, leaned on this lesson when he opted to name Keith Price his starter over Nick Montana.

In all three cases, a coach made a decision and it turned out to be the right one. That is what good coaches do. They use their wisdom and intuition to make decisions that help their football team reach its potential.

At a place like USC, "reach its potential," means winning and winning big. And that is -- critically -- where USC coach Lane Kiffin, who also coached under Carroll, has fallen short. He has made decisions and they have turned out to be the wrong ones. Those wrong decisions now have him riding an 8-7 record since his team started the 2012 season ranked No. 1.

When judging Kiffin, that is what matters: The concrete decisions he makes and the real-world results of those decisions. It's not about folks who have never talked to him one-on-one judging his personality or character. It's not about the perception that he's smug or hasn't paid his coaching dues. Forget perception and personality. It's about results.

Two games into the 2013 season, after a miserably disappointing 2012 campaign, those results have been terrible, at least in the specific areas that Kiffin oversees: offense and quarterbacks. Though Clay Helton is the titular quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator, Kiffin's decision -- another bad one -- to retain play-calling duties this fall makes him responsible entirely for the results on offense.

[+] EnlargeCody Kessler
Chris Williams/Icon SMICody Kessler and the USC offense were brought to their knees by Washington State.
Those results? The Trojans' longest pass play this year is 19 yards. They passed for only 54 yards -- 2.6 yards per completion -- in the 10-7 loss Saturday to Washington State, which yielded 263 yards passing per game last year. Auburn, which is using a former defensive back as its quarterback, passed for 99 yards in a win over the Cougars the week before. USC is ranked 112th in the nation in passing offense, despite having the nation's best receiver in Marqise Lee, the extremely talented Nelson Agholor and two future NFL tight ends in Xavier Grimble and Randall Telfer.

Of course, a defense lawyer pleading Kiffin's case could try to change the narrative. He could say USC doesn't have a Leinart, Sanchez or even a Price on its roster. He could say the QB competition was too close to call -- to anoint -- at the end of spring practices. He could say Kiffin should be able to call plays because it's his team, as Carroll called plays on defense and Sarkisian calls his offensive plays. He could say USC is leading with its stout defense. He could say NCAA sanctions are hurting Kiffin's offense.

He could say the season is far from over, and that would be unquestionably true.

The easy and decisive counter to all that is to wheel in a TV and turn on a replay of the loss to Washington State. To use a Kiffin phrase, "It is what it is." And that is horrific. If the prosecutor wanted to pile on, he'd then make it a double-feature with the Sun Bowl loss to Georgia Tech.

Yet, it's also easy to counter each defense argument.

QB talent? Max Wittek was No. 3 and Cody Kessler was No. 29 in the ranking of QB recruits in 2011. True freshman Max Browne was the No. 2 QB in the 2013 class. Young QBs across the country are putting up big numbers, most of whom were lower rated than these guys.

Competition too close to call? There wasn't an observer during spring practices who didn't believe Kessler had outplayed Wittek.

Call his own plays because it's his team? As the head coach, it's his job to judge performance objectively. By any measure, USC's offensive playcaller in 2012 failed at his job. He also certainly failed through two games this season.

Leading with a stout defense? Well, take a look at the scoreboard. That stout defense needed more help if winning remains the goal.

NCAA sanctions? Really? You'd use that argument after losing at home to a team that has averaged 9.8 losses per season over the past five years?

Kiffin's chief problem in 2012 was getting distracted by little things. He seemed consumed with gimmicks and gamesmanship. He hasn't seemed to grasp the fundamental fact of coaching USC: If superior players execute well, they win just about every time.

USC still has superior players. While that advantage might not be as decisive these days when matched with Oregon and Stanford, or even a rising UCLA, it certainly is when standing opposite Washington State.

Kiffin made a pair of decisions entering the 2013 season: 1. He would retain play-calling duties; 2. He would play two quarterbacks. After two games, those decisions are abject failures by even charitable measures.

Based on the "Fire Kiffin" chants in the Coliseum as the clock wound down last weekend, more than a few folks are done with charitable measures.

Pac-12 weekend rewind: Week 2

September, 9, 2013
Taking stock of Week 2 in the Pac-12.

Team of the week: It was inevitable that Washington State's 10-7 win at USC was going to end up being an archly negative referendum on Trojans coach Lane Kiffin, rather than a celebration of the Cougars' advancement, but the Cougs still had to make the plays to win the game. And they did. Washington State hinted at Auburn in the opener that it would be a tougher out in Year 2 under Mike Leach. At USC, the Cougars showed they are capable of winning Pac-12 games.

Best game: The Cougars' win at USC was devoid of offense, but it was the only game of the weekend that presented a lot of drama. Even California's closer-than-expected win over Portland State owned a note of inevitability once the Bears settled down on defense in the second half. In terms of good football, Oregon and Stanford certainly provided that in dominant victories.

Biggest play: Washington State cornerback Damante Horton provided the Cougs with their only touchdown when he returned an interception of a Cody Kessler pass for a 70-yard TD with one minute left before halftime. That tied the score at 7-7 and seemed to irritate Trojans fans in the Coliseum. Go figure.

[+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
Bob Donnan/USA TODAY SportsOregon RB De'Anthony Thomas rushed for 124 yards and three TDs against Virginia.
Offensive standout: There were a number of big performances against weak foes, but De'Anthony Thomas' work at Virginia stands out the most, in large part because it answered a question: Yes, Thomas can be a lead running back. His 124 yards on just 11 carries -- 11.3 yards per run -- and three touchdowns were not just flash. There were moments of physicality, too. Heck, he threw a couple of effective stiff arms against far larger defenders. He also caught a 28-yard pass, so he's still a weapon in the passing game when Mark Helfrich and Scott Frost want him to be.

Defensive standout: Horton not only had his pick-six, he also intercepted USC's other QB, Max Wittek, on the Trojans' final possession. That would be enough for a tip of the cap, but he also had two tackles for a loss and four total tackles. It's worth noting that he helped limit the nation's best receiver, Marqise Lee, to seven catches for 27 yards, though some of that may fall on the guy calling plays for the Trojans.

Defensive standout II: Stanford All-American safety Ed Reynolds had 12 tackles and an interception, leading the Cardinal's dominant defensive effort against David Fales and San Jose State. The Spartans had only 251 total yards in a 34-13 Stanford victory. Trent Murphy's two sacks also are worthy of note.

Special teams standout: New Arizona kicker Jake Smith set a school record with 16 points via kicking in the Wildcats' 58-13 win over UNLV. Smith was 3-for-4 on field goals with a long of 41 yards and he was perfect on seven extra points. Those 16 points broke the previous single-game record for kickers of 15 held previously by three players. In addition, Smith kicked off 11 times, with five touchbacks and a 63.3-yard average. The Rebels mustered only 16.5 yards per return on six tries, and Smith registered one tackle to stop a potential long return.

Smiley face: The Pac-12 took care of business and avoided upsets, going 8-0 in the Week 2 nonconference slate. There were some scares, most notably California and Colorado, but winning is the thing. The conference's top two teams, Oregon and Stanford, both posted dominant wins against respectable foes.

Frowny face: Well, this isn't terribly difficult: USC. Not USC as a whole, because the Trojans turned in a sterling defensive performance against Washington State. New defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has done everything asked of him. Maybe more. But the Trojans' offensive ineptitude against the Cougars is inexcusable. You could make an argument that a purely random selection of play calls would have produced more points and yards than what the Trojans got Saturday as boos rained down in the Coliseum.

Thought of the week: It's measuring stick week, time for the Pac-12 to announce to the country what many started theorizing in the preseason: The Pac-12 this fall is as strong as it has been in recent memory, top to bottom, and should be in the mix when debating the nation's best conference. There are games against three ranked teams: California vs. No. 4 Ohio State, UCLA at No. 23 Nebraska and Arizona State vs. No. 20 Wisconsin. Further, Washington visits Illinois, Colorado plays host to Fresno State, Boston College visits USC and Tennessee is at Oregon. The Pac-12 blog -- and others on the West Coast -- have talked the talk. Now the teams must walk the walk.

Questions for the week: Was Washington State Kiffin's Waterloo? It's not difficult to ascertain what fans at the Coliseum were thinking after the 10-7 loss to Washington State. After booing throughout the game, they chanted "Fire Kiffin" in the fourth quarter. The Pac-12 blog gets no joy from hot seat talk. Being gleefully snarky about a guy struggling at his life's work is pretty lame. But Kiffin is a big boy. Big-time college football is a bottom-line profession -- winning is the thing. And that's even more true at a place such as USC. Things will have to turn around quickly and dramatically, particularly on offense, for Kiffin to retain his job.
Some selected quotes from USC head coach Lane Kiffin’s Sunday night conference call following the Trojans’ 10-7 loss to Washington State.

Opening comments:

“I’m extremely disappointed by the final score of the game last night. Having watched the film, and all three phases of the game, there were a ton of opportunities for us to win that game that we left out there. Credit to Washington State … they played extremely hard, and as the game went on, they seemed to get more confident defensively and played really well down the stretch.”

Kiffin on the performance of the USC defense:

“We have played great defense through two games … phenomenal effort by our players … very aggressive. I’m really glad we have fixed what we set out to do last January, which was to change our defensive structure [and] to be more attacking to deal more with the different offenses that we face.”

On the performance of the USC offense and special teams units:

Tre Madden really ran extremely hard and took care of the football in the game. Our offensive line played well in the run game at times. The glaring thing, by far, was we were horrible in the passing game. And on special teams, surprisingly, we did not play to our standards. At the end of the day we lost by three points. We attempted two field goals and missed our two, and they made theirs. So, with all of the other stuff going wrong throughout the game, just one play that we make on offense or special teams would have been the difference in the outcome of the game.”

On the situation at quarterback, where both Cody Kessler and Max Wittek have split time at the position through the first two games:

“We are in the process of finalizing our quarterback position, so now after two games of playing with both guys, it’s time for us to make our decision. And we gave the players the day off, so we will meet with the players in the morning, and then we will have that decision for you after we meet with them.”

On what exactly has happened to the USC passing attack, particularly after what appeared to be a strong fall camp for both quarterbacks:

“I’m completely shocked at what’s going on in our passing game because of the spring and the fall of going against our defense, which we know is really good. We had some really big days throwing the ball with both quarterbacks … the receivers, tight ends and everybody involved in it. Unfortunately, in two games that hasn’t been the case, especially last night.”

Kiffin on what needs to happen to get the passing game turned around:

“We go back to work. We analyze what we’ve done in the first two games. What now do we know going forward? And that’s what we’ll work on all week in practice with our guys to get back to being effective in the passing game, like we’ve been here for years.”

On whether Kessler and Wittek are trying too hard to avoid making mistakes:

“There’s always a balance with the quarterback … taking care of the ball and not turning it over, but also making throws as well, and not playing scared. It’s obviously something that we’re looking at to make sure that we improve.”

On the booing and the general reaction from the fans at the game on Saturday:

“I think it just speaks to how passionate the SC fans are about wanting great success on the field, and I feel the same way with them. That was not a product that anybody should have been happy to see. … I’ve got to do a better job of what product is out there on the field.”

Does the move by Texas head coach Mack Brown to fire Longhorns’ defensive coordinator Manny Diaz at this point in the season surprise Kiffin, and could he ever imagine something like that happening in his program?

“Clay [Helton] is still here today. … I didn’t even know that happened, so I probably couldn’t even comment on that. I think, as you know, I’m focused on our own problems, and getting us better.”

On the potential of freshman Max Browne seeing any time at quarterback this season:

“The backup quarterback is always every fan’s favorite when the other guys aren’t playing well. … I think Max has a great future here. Ideally, we would like to redshirt him as he continues to progress in our offense, and we look forward to him competing for the starting job this spring.”

On what is happening on first and second down that is putting the USC offense in such a hole on third down (the Trojans are just 6-of-27 on third-down conversions this season):

“Negative plays, where we get in those situations because we’re not having efficient plays right away. … We’ve lost 64 yards rushing through two games -- obviously sacks count in that -- and that really gets you off balance.”

On what Kiffin has to do to avoid a repeat of last year where the team went into a downswing:

“Every year is different … we’ve played two games. We have a long season ahead of us. We’ve got to go back to work, and we’ve got to improve on the things that we’re not doing really well, and obviously that starts with the passing game.”

On whether he’s talked to USC athletic director Pat Haden since Saturday’s loss:

“Sure, I always talk to Pat. He always calls the next day after a game … a win, loss, tie … whatever it is.”

Did Haden offer any advice?

“No, it wasn’t that type of a conversation.”

Kiffin’s problems seem familiar 

September, 9, 2013
Call it the Steve Lavin Syndrome.

That is precisely what is happening with Lane Kiffin now at USC. Like Lavin, who was a low-level UCLA assistant basketball coach making coffee runs for soon-to-be-fired coach Jim Harrick in the mid-1990s, Kiffin was rushed into one of the highest profile head coaching jobs in the country.

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What we learned in the Pac-12: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
Five things we learned about the Pac-12 in Week 2.
  1. The Pac-12 can rally: After going 7-3 in Week 1, the most disappointing of those losses being Oregon State’s loss to Eastern Washington, the Pac-12 bounced back in Week 2, going 8-0 in its nonconference games. Most were blowouts. Some were dicier (cough, Cal, cough, Colorado, cough, Oregon State, sort of), but they were wins nevertheless. It was the kind of week the Pac-12 needed heading into a Week 3 that will see a significant uptick in the competition. The Pac-12 faces four Big Ten teams, three of which are ranked. And through the first two weeks of the season, the combined record of the nonconference foes in Week 3 is 18-2. The bar is raised. Despite the close calls, some very strong performances from ASU, Arizona, Utah and Stanford should not go unmarked. And does anyone else get the feeling that when Central Arkansas took a 24-17 lead in the fourth, the old Buffs would have wilted? Kudos to Mike MacIntyre for rallying his team (getting turnovers helps).
  2. [+] EnlargeDe'Anthony Thomas
    AP Photo/Andrew ShurtleffDe'Anthony Thomas had little trouble against Virginia, but the Oregon offense wasn't perfect.
    Good can be better: We know Oregon is good. We also know the Ducks can be better. For the second straight week, De'Anthony Thomas and Marcus Mariota rushed for at least 100 yards (124 for DAT, 122 for Mariota) and the scoreboard shows a dominating performance over Virginia. But there were uncharacteristic drops. Four drives stalled and turned into punts. And while we concede that Oregon will in fact have to punt from time to time, we certainly don’t expect drives of three plays, 2 yards; three plays, minus-1 yard; three plays, minus-9 yards. Take it as a compliment that you can beat a BCS conference opponent, on the road, 59-10 and still have things to work on.
  3. Lane Kiffin is on fire (not in a good way): The hottest seat in America just got a healthy dusting of thermite. The quarterback soap opera, which is now turning into horrific reality TV, is overshadowing what should be a couple of great performances from USC’s defense. And it’s actually gotten to the point where the quarterback play is hurting the defense. In USC's loss to Washington State, Cody Kessler was 8-of-13 for 41 yards with a pick-six. Max Wittek was 3-of-8 for 13 yards with an interception. Through two games, the quarterbacks are a combined 26-of-50 for 226 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. Want some perspective? Arizona safety Tra'Mayne Bondurant has more interceptions returned for touchdowns (two) than both USC quarterbacks have touchdown passes. This make-or-break season for Kiffin is breaking, rapidly. Hats off to the Cougs, who have beaten two Top 25 teams in their last three games.
  4. Goff and Wilson, young guns: The Utes have been star-crossed at quarterback the last couple of seasons, but they appear to have something special in Travis Wilson. Per ESPN Stats and Information, Wilson’s showing against Weber State was one of the finest quarterback performances in the last decade. His raw QBR rating was 99.7. Raw meaning it will be adjusted to reflect quality of competition -- so it will drop. Still, he averaged 16.2 yards per play, accounted for five touchdowns and his rating of 99.7 is the eighth-ranked single-game score by any quarterback with at least 25 action plays since 2004 (fifth in the last five seasons). It’s the highest total QBR with that many action plays since Andrew Luck posted a 99.9 versus Cal back in November 2010. If you still aren’t up on the QBR, click here. You’ll be seeing it a lot on the blog this season -- especially with quarterbacks like Mariota, Brett Hundley, Taylor Kelly, Kevin Hogan, Keith Price and apparently, Wilson. Speaking of bright young quarterbacks, also per our friends at Stats and Info, Cal's Jared Goff has 930 passing yards in two games. That’s the second most by a quarterback in his team's first two games since 2000 (Colt Brennan had the most in 2007).
  5. Stanford owns Cali: Stanford coach David Shaw improved to a perfect 10-0 against schools from California. The Cardinal’s 34-13 win over San Jose State moved him to 3-0 against the Spartans since taking over in 2011. He’s also 2-0 against USC, 3-0 against UCLA and 2-0 against California. If anyone is curious, the margin of victory in those 10 games is 16.1 points. But that’s a bit skewed by a pair of 2011 victories over San Jose State (57-3) and UCLA (45-19). There have been some tight ones, like the three-overtime USC game in 2011, 31-28 over Cal in 2011, 20-17 over San Jose State in 2012, 27-24 over UCLA in 2012 and 21-14 over USC in 2012. Still, perfect is perfect.