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At USC, 11 would be way better than 2

LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin ruffles feathers. It's just part of the Lane Kiffin experience.

He was at it again Saturday, after a lackluster second half, when ESPN television reporter Shelley Smith asked him what he learned about his USC Trojans team in a 19-17 win over Minnesota.

"We've got two good players on our offense. We've got to figure out the rest," Kiffin told Smith.

Some USC fans and probably a few USC players wondered what that meant. Does the head coach think Matt Barkley and Robert Woods are the only good players at his disposal when he's calling plays? The issue didn't quite go away by the time the Trojans returned to practice, so Kiffin addressed it in a meeting with his offense early Tuesday morning. He offered a mea culpa.

"I didn't mean it that way," Kiffin said.

Maybe not, but was he right? The rest of this 2011 season could be about answering that one, vital question. If USC doesn't find a way to diversify its offense, somebody's going to figure out a way to take Woods away, or at least limit his damage. Somebody's going to find a way to make Barkley uncomfortable, no matter how quickly he releases the ball.

You would think they have at least a few other good players around Heritage Hall. It's not like USC coaches have been recruiting leftovers and pip squeaks for the past few years. Left tackle Matt Kalil comes to mind. He's 6-foot-7, 295 pounds, in his second year as a starter, had an NFL dad and has an NFL brother. A lot of experts view him as a top-5 NFL draft pick after his junior season.

It's rare that there aren't a few play-making tailbacks on USC's practice field. Will Marc Tyler, Dillon Baxter or D.J. Morgan manage to take some heat off Barkley and Woods?

Judging by early indications -- and they may not be entirely misleading -- this may not be a typical USC team, mixing a punishing ground game with the threat of a deep strike. Trojans running backs rushed for a total of 104 yards Saturday. Kiffin was so unmoved by the ability of his team to run the ball that he called pass plays 62 percent of the time, moving away from a commitment to balance.

That was against a Minnesota team that ranked 99th in rushing defense in 2010. And this week, what can USC expect from Utah?

"Since we've been back this time, I would say this is the best front four we've seen," Kiffin said. "Their front seven is really, really good and dominant at times."

It's been only one game -- which included a dominant first half by USC, by the way -- but already you can sense this season teetering. Most of Kiffin's worry lines nowadays are caused by an offensive line anchored by Kalil but in danger of going adrift. With four guys in new roles Saturday, there was a lot of chaos up front. USC guards struggled so badly to contain defenders coming in from the back side that any running play between the tackles had the potential to blow up at the point of attack.

The Trojans were trying desperately to fix the problem, but time is short before Game 2. Martin Coleman got some reps as the first-team left guard Tuesday. The Trojans are hoping Abe Markowitz can play this week. But the problems might be severe enough that quick slants and bubble screens to Woods might be the crutch that never goes away.

"We've got to be more aggressive. We can't be as passive as we were in that game," Kalil said. "This is a lot bigger, faster, better team we're playing. The performance we had last week won't cut it this time. We've got to improve in our run game and scheming up with the O-line to get this done this week."

Things aren't exactly hunky-dory in the backfield either. Tyler was suspended because he made some ill-advised comments to a website after leaving a night club a couple of months ago. Baxter barely played because he didn't work hard enough in practice last week, he said. The other two ball carriers have physical limitations.

If this were a basketball team, the Trojans could probably go a long way with two brilliant players, Barkley and Woods doing a Stockton-Malone kind of thing. Football is a different animal. If one vital organ isn't working right, the whole thing could collapse. With 10 more games left after Saturday, the Trojans were hoping for new beginnings, not premature endings.

Mark Saxon covers USC and the Angels for ESPNLA.com.