Commentary

Sluggish start ... again

Play calling contributes to USC's problems with Syracuse

Updated: September 10, 2012, 12:06 PM ET
By Steve Bisheff | WeAreSC

Call it a trend. Like tattoos and hybrid cars, Lane Kiffin's trend is sluggish starts.

This is Kiffin's third year helming the Trojans, and it has happened to him all three years.

In 2010, it was a 13-point escape against outmanned Hawaii followed by a 17-14 scare against mediocre Virginia and a 32-21 flat-line outing against nondescript Minnesota. In 2011, you had a 19-17 squeaker against Minnesota again followed by a 23-14 scare at home from a less than overpowering Utah team.

[+] EnlargeUSC-Syracuse (Robert Woods)
AP Photo/Bill KostrounRobert Woods had two scores against Syracuse, but the USC passing game seemed limited to he and Marqise Lee.
To start 2012, the 49-10 final score against milquetoast Hawaii that was deceiving only because there was nothing crisp or impressive about it, other than Marqise Lee. Then there was the limp 42-29 win over Syracuse in the Meadowlands that might have been catastrophic if not for the return of the old Robert Woods.

So what exactly is going on here? Does Kiffin put less significance on these games against relative cupcakes? Is he purposely starting slow while trying to build momentum for the eventual heavyweight battles down the road? Does he simply get nervous and conservative in the first couple weeks? Or is there something about his stern, business-like coaching style that simply doesn't get through to his kids early?

It is difficult to say at this point, except if the trend continues, it eventually could catch up to the Trojans, possibly as soon as this Saturday in a dangerous game at Stanford.

The most perplexing part of that storm-interrupted exercise in New Jersey was Kiffin's strategy.

The coach's Bubble-Screens-R-Us tendencies are well known, but this was ridiculous. It isn't easy to throw six touchdowns while compiling less than 200 yards passing, unless, of course, you rarely instruct Matt Barkley to toss the ball downfield.

What was that all about? Here you've got the Heisman Trophy frontrunner at quarterback and two of college football's premier receivers, and you're afraid to unload it more than 10 or 15 yards?

There was something strange about Kiffin's play-calling the whole game. It was just so intentionally basic.

What other explanation is there for throwing once -- that's right, one time -- to your backs all day? Anyone who saw the Trojans in the spring knows that fullback Soma Vainuku can be a major weapon in this offense. He got one touch against the Orange.

And how about never throwing a ball to any wide receiver not named Woods or Lee? The Trojans are loaded with skilled athletes like De'Von Flournoy, Nelson Agholor, Victor Blackwell and George Farmer, all itching to get a shot in a game. Teams are doubling Woods and Lee on the outside, couldn't one of these guys get a chance?

Whatever was taking place on the sideline, there is no excuse for Syracuse creeping to within 21-16 after three quarters, no matter where the game is played.

The bottom line is that a contender for a national title hasn't played like it yet. The Trojans' loaded offense was outperformed by their defense for 30 minutes.

When Dion Bailey, Morgan Breslin and friends held the Orange to three points in the first half, the suspense should have been over. But it wasn't, because the Trojans just couldn't find their rhythm on offense.

The run blocking eventually improved enough to get Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal untracked, although now you have to wonder how that will go with All-American center Khaled Holmes apparently out indefinitely.

Kiffin did not offer any updates on Holmes despite being seen on crutches afterwards. And excellent placekicker Andre Heidari didn't even make the trip.

Either way, we should find out the extent of those injuries next Saturday in Palo Alto.

Meanwhile, the good news is that in each of Kiffin's previous two years on the job, the performance of his team improved steadily, sometimes even spectacularly, as the season progressed.

As trends go, that, at least, is one Trojan fans would like to see continue.