Every time the CBS cameras showed Lane Kiffin during Monday’s 21-7 loss to Georgia Tech in the Sun Bowl, he had a big, black hood over his head and he wore sunglasses that obscured much of his face.
Kiffin’s aim, presumably, was to counter the blustery, oddly sunny conditions in El Paso, but it looked as if he was trying not to be noticed. Who can blame him?
Monday’s two-touchdown loss -- to a team that got blown out by Middle Tennessee, finished below .500 and had to petition to play in a bowl game -- seemed like a fitting finale to USC’s season, in which expectations and reality meshed as well as garlic and peppermint ice cream.
To me, it seemed like the No. 1 ranking was a bit much back in September, but I never would have predicted such a mess of a season from a team with good senior leadership and so many playmakers.
It all seems to suggest changes need to come for 2013, from the way Kiffin approaches the offense to the way the defense approaches spread offenses. This USC season went from bad to worse to embarrassing in incremental steps and Monday the Trojans finally reached the ground floor.
The damage had already been done way before the Trojans got to the far west corner of Texas. Tough losses to Oregon, Stanford and Notre Dame stung. Bad losses to UCLA and Arizona infuriated. When a team disappoints as thoroughly as this USC team did, how it fares in some far-off bowl in between holidays doesn’t linger much in most fans’ memories.
But there has to be accountability for the way this season unraveled at the end. ESPN’s Pac-12 blogger, Ted Miller, wrote that USC is “three touchdowns better than the Yellow Jackets,” but it didn’t look like Georgia Tech’s only edge Monday was motivation. The Yellow Jackets looked better-coached. They looked more confident. They looked like they were playing with more joy and more togetherness.
USC’s defensive guru, Monte Kiffin, coached his last game for the Trojans on Monday. The 72-year-old NFL legend decided to step down after a series of defensive breakdowns in the Trojans’ biggest games. It's nice that his defense sent him off with a solid effort, better than the score reflects. Georgia Tech scored one of its touchdowns on a punt return.
That’s fine, but -- how’s this for a depressing thought for 2013 -- USC looked awful in every phase other than defense against Georgia Tech. Quarterback Max Wittek, the presumptive starter next season, looked lost at sea, flinging balls over receivers’ heads, into opponents’ arms, off defensive ends’ hands and skipping off the turf. He completed only the easiest of throws, but for some reason Kiffin kept giving him difficult ones.
Playing in blustery conditions, punter Kyle Negrete drove a third-quarter punt low and short, a mistake that turned into Georgia Tech’s second touchdown -- the easiest special-teams score you’re going to find. You would think Negrete would have gotten in rhythm, considering he had to punt eight times.
It took USC more than 21 minutes of the second half to pick up a first down. Wittek threw three interceptions and his average completion was for 2.9 yards.
Maybe by next spring, nobody will be thinking about this game any longer. Hopefully, Wittek won’t let it consume him for the next few months because he still could have a bright future at USC.
Maybe it will be just a lousy game, one of those that some day will raise a giggle or two from USC fans remembering a sad season.
But Kiffin has to learn from it, or nobody’s going to be laughing any longer.