LOS ANGELES -- Through three games this season, USC head coach Lane Kiffin and staff were disappointed.
The staff was disheartened with the number of turnovers -- just three -- the defense had forced.
Even before the drubbing in Tempe, the Trojans staff turned to bribery. They offered the entire unit ice cream if they produced at least one turnover last week against Arizona State. Most days during the season, the Trojans can eat only the sugar-free soft-serve frozen yogurt supplied at the school's athlete cafeteria. So, the real stuff was supposed to mean something.
Was supposed to.
"Yeah, that still didn't work," Kiffin said Tuesday. "We thought that would work with the linemen, but you'd be surprised.
"We've tried basically about everything."
The Trojans lost that game 43-22 in Tempe, in large part due to a terrible turnover differential of minus-4. And now, through a quarter of the 2011 season, USC is second-worst in the conference in defensive turnovers and worst among all 12 teams in turnover differential, numbers that place the Trojans well outside the top 100 FBS-wide in both categories.
Kiffin, it's clear, is genuinely puzzled by his team's inability to do what it used to do so well in previous years. In the middle of the Pete Carroll era during the 2000s, USC teams would routinely double their opponents in turnovers over the course of a year.
Now, the Trojans will be hard-pressed to even balance their books this season, which Kiffin said this week is the single most surprising thing to him of everything that's happened with the team since his re-arrival on campus in January 2010.
Considering all of the unusual occurrences of the past 20 months, that's saying something.
"We're very surprised for as much attention that we've put on it," Kiffin said.
Even in practice USC doesn't create as many turnovers as it used to, and a lot of them come in first team vs. second team scrimmage sequences, which are not nearly as valuable in performance-predicting situations.
Asked if he was surprised at how few turnovers the Trojans were producing this year, first-year starter Dion Bailey shook his head no.
"We just haven't been taking advantage of our opportunities," said Bailey, a strong-side linebacker who leads the team in tackles so far with 26.
"We've been getting the ball on the ground, but we haven't been getting on it and things such as that. Not being in the right place at the right time to get our hands on pass breakups and [interceptions.]
"But we're working on that and that's going to change this week. Hopefully we come out with 10 turnovers this week to make up for not really getting enough the past couple games."
Bailey, a redshirt freshman, has one forced fumble and has two sacks in the books this season. The Trojans as a team have just three forced fumbles -- two have been recovered. And one interception, which came at the very end of the season opener against Minnesota, was by cornerback Torin Harris.
In part, that's due to the style teams often adopt when they play Monte Kiffin defenses. It's established by now that the best and easiest way to game plan against the Kiffins -- especially in college -- is to dink-and-dunk your way down the field and exploit downfield opportunities only when they arise.
That doesn't particularly lend itself to turnover-creation, because, 1) there often isn't enough time to jump routes when they are five-yard outs and short slants through the natural gaps in the Cover-2 defense; 2) there also isn't enough time to sack the quarterback and force him into fumbling when he's getting rid of the ball three seconds after the snap or less.
But that's not being brought up by those inside the program, because that's no excuse for how subpar the numbers have been the last two years. It may explain a little bit, but nothing more.
And, until it changes, this turnover issue will likely maintain its status as Kiffin's No. 1 area of concern.
"We just continue to work on it out here, continue to show shots of turnovers and them getting forced and how people are getting them out," Kiffin said. "We just do everything that we can and hopefully it will turn around.
"Sometimes it does, sometimes all of a sudden it just turns around and you don't do anything different than you have been and then all of a sudden you go plus-four in a game."
So it could happen at any time? Kiffin pointed at Arizona State's Week 4 performance against the Trojans as an example to support his claim. The week before against Illinois, the Sun Devils turned the ball over three times and created three of their own for a neutral differential.
And then, against the Trojans, ASU exploded for the plus-four number.
"I'm sure Arizona State didn't change anything very much," Kiffin said. "They just kept doing what they were doing and all of a sudden coming in with us, after turning the ball over a couple times the week before, they did a much better job."
Pedro Moura covers USC for ESPNLA