LOS ANGELES -- Dillon Baxter finally got his long-awaited chance to run the ball Saturday, carrying it seven times for 29 yards in the fourth quarter when USC's 38-17 win over Syracuse was already a foregone conclusion.
He had said in previous weeks that "any kind of playing time would be nice." And it was nice, he said Saturday. But not too nice -- not nice enough to appease him or make him happy or make him forget about the first two games.
"[Coach Lane] Kiffin has his own agenda," Baxter said after Saturday's game. "I just do what I do and keep working hard."
The concept of an agenda isn't an inappropriate one for a head coach. He should have a game plan, obviously -- an idea of what he wants to do heading into each game at each position. But the issue here is that Kiffin's agenda isn't shared with his players. They don't know what they're going to be doing in the game until they actually do it.
"We kind of know who's going to start, because that's who goes first in practice Wednesday and Thursday," said running back Marc Tyler, who started against Syracuse and carried the ball eight times in the first half and 15 times overall. "But you never know really how many reps the other guy's gonna get behind you."
That's not a ridiculous concept for running backs, in general. It's fairly normal to take a running-back-by-committee approach and let players' performances dictate how many carries they'll get and how many times they'll be in the game. The problem is that in games like Saturday's, Kiffin really didn't do much of that.
Take a look at the distribution of carries. Tyler had five yards at halftime on his eight carries yet took the next six rushes in the third quarter. Then, when he started to get going in the early fourth, he was taken out in favor of Baxter, who rushed three straight times and gained 14 yards.
After that, Curtis McNeal got his first carry, running for 16 yards straight-away. Then D.J. Morgan got his first carry and immediately fumbled it. Baxter and McNeal finished out the final drive, ending the game with fewer combined carries than Tyler himself (12 to 15) yet more than twice as many yards (112 to 47).
The way the game worked out Saturday made it seem like USC had a two-tier system with its running backs: Tyler as the clear No. 1 and the other three guys split at No. 2, with Baxter maybe an tad higher. But Kiffin didn't say that, not publicly and apparently not privately, either. And that's the issue here.
And, now, another week of questions surrounding the running backs await the Trojans' head coach. Is Tyler still going to be the starter? What about Baxter and McNeal, who ran hard late? He's going to have to answer those and more.
Here's the thing: He won't. He won't say why, just like he wouldn't say why he gave Tyler the lion's share of the carries Saturday other than to praise his pass-protection skills.
At some point, though, there's going to have to be a resolution. At some point, there's going to have to be a clear-cut depth chart at running back.