2:48 AM EDT, September 8, 2013
Two games into the 2013 season, there are two words that perfectly describe the state of the USC football program.
They are two words that echoed through the bowels of the Coliseum late Saturday night, two words chanted by thousands of voices, two words illustrating how a loyal and sunny crowd have been drenched in anger and hopelessnesss.
"Fire ... Kiffin."’
Lane Kiffin returned to work in front of Trojan fans for the first time this fall after being jeered into last winter, and it was as if the coach had never left.
With three hours of boos preceding the ominous late chant, Kiffin’s Trojans were poorly coached, poorly managed, and ultimately embarrassed in a 10-7 loss to Washington State.
Fire Kiffin? Everyone worried that this Trojan season would turn bad under the embattled young coach, but few could imagine it would turn this bad, this quickly.
Fire Kiffin? Even in an athletic department run by a guy who clearly doesn’t want to dirty his hands, this could still be the official beginning of the end of his stormy four-year tenure, a nail in the Kiffin.
Pat Haden and his rose-colored spectacles can’t ignore what happened on the field and in the stands in Saturday night’s home debut, and how it mirrors what has happened with Kiffin since the middle of last season. This is no longer about the smoke and mirrors of deflated footballs and phony jersey numbers. This is about reality of defeats that are embarrassing to the program’s rich tradition, a culture whose proud legacy is under the care of Haden, whose effectiveness is also now being seriously questioned.
Before this season Haden said he’s "100%" behind Kiffin, yet the coach has now lost six of his last eight games in a stretch that includes embarrassing losses to Arizona, UCLA, Georgia Tech in last year’s Sun Bowl debacle, and now, Washington State.
This was the same Washington State that had been outscored 146-22 by USC in their last three meetings, that had lost eight straight to the Trojans, that had not beaten them in the Coliseum in 13 years.
Yet this was a Cougars team that, under the brainy Mike Leach, thoroughly outcoached and outworked the Trojans in a game that left the visiting coach smirking about the vaunted Coliseum.
“It’s not the loudest stadium, but there’s some magic here," said Leach. "From that standpoint, I can’t wait to play here again."
A Washington State coach saying he can’t wait to play here again? Is Haden listening? And Leach wasn’t finished.
“These are high-profile players at USC, for goodness sakes," Leach chortled. "They have their Twitter handle next to their name on their two-deep roster."
With waves of boos surrounding them from late in the first quarter until they walked off the field Saturday, the Trojans players are now feeling the brunt of the fans’ distaste for their coach. This was the worst and earliest expression of dissatisfaction by Trojan Nation in recent memory, and it was certainly the ugliest, and it was hard to blame them.
A 41-yard field goal by Andrew Furney with 3:03 left in the game gave the Cougars a victory on a night in which Kiffin never seemed to give his team a chance.
The Trojans’ offense, with Kiffin calling a puzzling collection of misguided plays, scored one touchdown and gained 193 total yards against a defense that allowed Auburn to score 31 points and gain 394 yards in its opener.
Kiffin has been criticized since the season began for being unable to choose a quarterback -- only his most important personnel decision. But based on Saturday night, it seems he doesn’t want either one, as he continually took the ball out of their hands.
Cody Kessler and Max Wittek combined to throw just 21 passes while completing 11 for an average of less than five yards a completion. They basically weren’t allowed to throw downfield. They basically weren’t allowed to do anything but hand the ball to Tre Madden, who carried 32 times for 156 yards and later provided some perspective on the madness.
"Thirty plus [carries], that’s a lot, it took a toll," Madden said afterward. "I’m pretty banged up right now. . . ."
Kiffin also completely took the game away from his former Heisman candidate Marqise Lee, who was targeted only on mostly predictable bubble screens that went nowhere, as he caught seven balls for only 27 yards. Forget Lee’s running mate Nelson Agholor, who didn’t even have a catch.
When the quarterbacks were finally challenged to make a big pass, they were totally unprepared. At the end of the first half, Kessler threw the ball directly to the Cougars’ Damante Horton, who returned it 70 yards for a touchdown. At the end of the game, in the Trojans’ last-gasp drive, Wittek was also intercepted by Horton.
It added up to a night of ringing hostility that occasionally seemed to distract the players, but apparently never bothered their coach.
"You can’t worry about that, it is what it is," Kiffin said of the boos. "I think I heard those before the game started, in warmups, I’m getting used to it."
But should his players, college kids who really aren’t the target of the boos, have to get used to it?
"We’re getting used to playing on the road," Kiffin said with an odd, tiny grin.
It is Haden’s job to protect the interest of the players he always refers to as "student athletes." Right now, it seems like those players, including innocent members of the effective Trojans defense, are being held up to ridicule by an offensive system that doesn’t give them much of a chance.
Kiffin acknowledged Saturday that his offense was unprepared for the Cougars defense and that he didn’t trust his players enough to throw downfield.
"We obviously weren’t prepared well enough on offense," he said, adding, "It just didn’t seem in our best interest to put that quarterback back there and let him get hit and let balls get tipped and turn the ball over."
He even cited rusty Kessler’s interception as justification for not throwing the ball.
"We do go to passing, and we give them seven points," Kiffin said.
The evening began with its only bit of inspiration, as former USC great Marcus Allen led the team onto the field before the opening kickoff. But, fittingly, he ran so hard and fast, he outran everyone to midfield, at which point he stopped and summoned them to catch up.
This Trojan team isn’t even in sight of the great Trojan tradition, and it’s fading faster by the week.
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