- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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HONOLULU -- Lane Kiffin smiled when he was asked who his starting quarterback would be after USC's final practice this week.
"I'm not going to tell you the end of the movie before you go to the movie," Kiffin said. "You're going to have to watch."
If USC's quarterback situation were a movie, it would have been more of a dud than a blockbuster to start the season.
The USC Trojans beat the Hawaii Warriors 30-13 Thursday night, but the victory had more to do with USC's defense, which had seven sacks and four interceptions, than the play of the quarterbacks. In fact, 20 of the 30 points USC scored came directly or indirectly from the defense.
Cody Kessler and Max Wittek have spent the past eight months battling to become USC's next starting quarterback. It was a drawn-out affair that didn't get any closer to a resolution after the team's three-week fall camp, which ended with Kiffin calling the quarterback competition a draw.
Kessler was announced as the starting quarterback two hours before the game, but it only took a few minutes into the game to realize he wasn't quite ready to take the reins of the team.
There was no doubt Kessler deserved to start Thursday night. He outplayed Wittek during the course of fall camp and the team's three scrimmages. He may not have played well enough to be named the definitive starting quarterback this season, but he played well enough to earn the first snap of the season.
"Going into that last week they were neck-and-neck, and as we told Max, we felt Cody had a little bit better week," Kiffin said. "We wanted to see guys play. Practice is one thing, but we wanted to come in here and see what both could do.
It didn't take Kessler long to feel how different playing USC's second unit in camp was compared to a Hawaii defense that wanted to take his head off. He went from an energetic leader who had the command of his huddle in practices to a nervous ball of energy who shrunk under the spotlight.
"I'm not making excuses, but it was my first game," Kessler said. "I'm just excited to get that under my belt. There's a lot of things I want to improve on, but at the end of the day we're 1-0."
Kiffin's play-calling certainly didn't help as he treated Kessler like a back-up rather than a starter. If Kiffin trusted Kessler with the starting job, he should have also trusted him to handle play calls outside the dink-and-dunk variety. Kessler was 10-for-18 for 95 yards but 15 of those passes were for 10 or fewer yards.
Kessler's only pass completion of more than 10 yards was a 19-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Aghlor. It was the only time during the game when Kessler looked even remotely as comfortable and as competent as he had during camp. The touchdown actually came from a Kessler audible at the line of scrimmage after he saw Aghlor with single coverage.
Time after time, the 6-foot-1 Kessler either had his passes tipped at the line of scrimmage or held on to the ball too long. The latter happened in the end zone when he was sacked for a safety in the second quarter.
Kiffin gave Kessler every chance to find himself, even sticking with him after an interception following the safety when it was clear he couldn't find his way out of the huddle.
The old adage is if you have two quarterbacks, you actually have none, and in the case of USC that couldn't be more true.
"I don't think we played real well there today," Kiffin said of his quarterbacks. "We didn't do real well around him, including myself. … My anticipation was that both would play great, but unfortunately that didn't really happen."
Wittek came in after Kessler's three-and-out to start the second half, but it took him until his third series to throw his first pass. That's because Wittek was sacked the first two times he dropped back to pass. Wittek, at times, can be a 6-foot-4, 235-pound statue in the pocket. He's mobile enough to throw on the run but far too often holds the ball longer than he should. Wittek finished the game 5-for-10 for 77 yards with no touchdowns. Almost as important with a defense that might be as good as USC's this season, he didn't have any interceptions.
"Being able to watch and learn and see the halftime adjustments we made and learn about what they were doing on defense helped me a little bit," Wittek said. "It took me a little bit to get warm and get a rhythm and flow, but that's just how it is."
One of the biggest issues with USC's quarterback play actually has little to do with their quarterbacks and a lot to do with their mediocre offensive line. A line that was much-maligned last season is probably worse this season and won't give anyone who lines up under center much time to do anything.
Kiffin worked this offseason on USC's third-down conversions after the Trojans ranked 105th among Football Bowl Subdivision teams at 34.2 percent last season. He studied the New England Patriots, who finished first in the NFL in that category, and adapted several of their short-yardage packages. USC actually looked worse Thursday, converting just 3-of-14 third downs and having to settle for two field-goal attempts in the red zone.
Marqise Lee was uncharacteristically rusty to start the season with a couple of big drops and a fumbled punt. He seemed more comfortable with Wittek in the second half as he had five catches for 77 yards. Lee had three catches for 27 yards with Kessler. Lee, however, said he was fine playing with either quarterback, or both if he had to.
"I think they both played well," Lee said. "There were a couple of mistakes here and there but overall I think both guys played great. I think Cody did great and Max did great. At the end of the day we won. That's all that really matters."
Kessler and Wittek waited to address the media on the field after Kiffin was done with his postgame news conference. They both answered questions a few yards from each other about how well they played, awkwardly watching as reporters drifted between the players. At some point, Kiffin will have to pick a starting quarterback for the rest of the season, but it was clear to him and anyone watching that there's probably not a clear-cut starting quarterback on this team.
"I was hoping it would be settled a long time ago, but it's not my job just to do what makes me feel good," Kiffin said. "I have to make sure I have to do what's in the best interest of the team, and I think that showed today. There was not a real obvious No. 1 out there today."
Whenever Kiffin is asked to handicap the quarterback race he nods his head and says he has to go back and watch the film. He repeated the same mantra after the game Thursday as USC's quarterback drama will drag on at least another week.
Judging by the thousands of empty seats at Aloha Stadium and the game ending at close to midnight in Los Angeles, few stayed up to watch the end of the USC's first film this season. The Trojans can only hope the sequel plays out better.
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