- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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SEATTLE -- Matt Barkley stood outside the visiting locker room at CenturyLink Field, took off his navy blue and silver USC hat, and rubbed his head as he tried to make sense of USC's latest win that produced more questions than it did answers about the direction of the team and their quarterback.
Barkley didn't look like the quarterback of a team that had just won because his final stat line didn't look like that of a quarterback or team that had just won.
He finished the game completing just 10 of 20 passes for 167 yards and had one touchdown and one interception. He completed only 3 of 10 passes in the second half and USC was only 2 of 12 on third-down conversions, opting to run on third and long throughout the game instead of putting the ball in Barkley's hands. Barkley also was sacked five times, including once on fourth down late in the game.
"It's just the little things like you saw last week with the penalties and being undisciplined," Barkley said. "If we play undisciplined football like that we're not going to have a blowout football game, it's going to be close. Those are things that we need to fix in terms of stalling drives and putting ourselves in second-and-long and third-and-long situations. If we correct those things, we'll be fine."
Lane Kiffin and Barkley have been trying to "correct those things" on offense for the past six weeks now. While USC finished the first half of the season at 5-1, there's no question the Trojans would probably be 6-0, in the driver's seat for the BCS national championship game and Barkley would still be the favorite to win the Heisman Trophy if they had corrected those mistakes long ago.
Instead, those same mistakes continue to rear their ugly head every week, leaving players and coaches to sound like a broken record when talking about what's wrong with the team.
Perhaps the scariest mantra coming out of USC's locker room now is that the Trojans don't care about style, stats and substance anymore as long as they simply win the game.
"I continue to remind myself that there's one goal and that's to win the game," Kiffin said. "Are the numbers what we're used to? No, but we won. If you remember [against Stanford] when we went on the road, we weren't sitting here with a win so, yeah, we played conservative when we got a lead. We said it all along. This isn't about anybody's numbers or a Heisman or any of that. It's about winning games and we did the best thing to win today."
If USC's goal is still to win the national championship, numbers should and do matter.
Let's not forget that the national championship game in college football (until we get a four-team playoff in 2014) is still very much a beauty pageant if there are not two undefeated teams at the end of the season.
Kiffin could have adopted his old friend Al Davis' "Just win, baby" attitude if USC hadn't stumbled against Stanford. Now, USC has to not only win but look good doing it if they are going to be the top-ranked one-loss team. They're already behind one-loss LSU and will likely be behind one-loss Oklahoma when the new polls come out, and both of those teams lost after USC.
One of the biggest reasons USC was a preseason favorite to win the BCS national championship was because Barkley was a preseason favorite to win the Heisman Trophy. Those two awards are not mutually exclusive. Barkley's rise to Heisman contention last year coincided with USC's rise in the rankings and that will likely be the case again this season if USC is able to climb their way back to the top.
The problem is Kiffin isn't allowing Barkley to become a Heisman contender as he leans on a running game that rushed for 204 yards against Washington on Saturday and a defense that forced four turnovers.
The more you talk to Kiffin, the more it becomes apparent that USC lost more than a game against Stanford last month; they may have lost Kiffin's creativity as a play-caller.
USC didn't score a point in the second half Saturday because Kiffin wasn't willing to take the same chances that made him such a good play-caller at the end of last season.
"We were playing to win," Kiffin said after the game. "I wanted to sit here in this press conference at 5-1, not 4-2 and we did that."
"In those situations, why go back and get him hit again? Play to our defense and get on the plane and go home," Kiffin said. "The last thing I wanted to do in this environment was sit there and drop back and let these guys rush us and let the quarterback get hit. If you go back to the Stanford road game, there were times I was letting Matt get hit in those same situations and made sure I didn't do that today."
When Barkley was relayed Kiffin's comments, he was speechless. The last thing he wants to have Kiffin do is call plays aimed at protecting him on the field instead of getting a first down.
"I've never heard that from him before," Barkley said. "I can take any hit. That's surprising."
Kiffin will have to stop protecting Barkley and allow him to air it out to Lee, Woods and his talented receivers if USC will have a chance to beat Oregon next month. Draw plays on third and long and 10 completions aren't going to cut it against the Ducks.
"Every game is not going to be like that. We're going to have to score more at some point," Kiffin said. "We have played some lower-ranked offenses compared to what's coming and every game will be different, but the bottom line is to win the game."
If USC's bottom line at the end of the season is still winning a national championship, they're going to have to start doing more than that soon.