Sometimes, in the middle of a season like this, a game or two may appear to be more meaningless than others. All attention Saturday was on Baton Rouge, Dallas and South Bend. USC was supposed to handle its business in Seattle, and it did, although in a lackluster style with no scoring in the second half. And this week brings a Colorado game few will watch and may resemble more of a JV scrimmage.
But if you actually pay attention to what Lane Kiffin is doing, and you don’t pay attention to the numerous negative headlines, you can actually notice than something is going on with the Trojans. And while it’s not necessarily pretty, it’s important. A team identity is emerging.
Something happened after Kiffin’s self-admitted off night in Palto Alto earlier this year. Sure, the Trojans have seemed less than elite with three wins in four weeks against the Bears, Utes and Huskies, but this mid-season period has given Kiffin the chance to get some perspective. He seems to understand his team -- strengths and weaknesses -- more than ever. He’s seen how teams have adjusted to play the Trojans, and he has also had the chance to look at the remainder of the schedule and get a sense of what lies ahead over the next six grueling weeks. His focus isn’t on individual stats, “SportsCenter” highlights, flashy scores or lopsided wins. His focus is right where it should be -- giving this group of Trojans their best chance to win a championship.
I’m sure many would disagree with me, seeing a few games filled with sloppy play where the Trojans were tested more than they should have been. After all, if they want to win a championship, they need to start winning impressively, and they aren’t. Well, my response is simple: The Trojans will have plenty of chances to impress in the weeks ahead, with the spotlight right on them. But the team must develop between now and then to take advantage of that stage.
So Kiffin is developing the team. It’s getting Josh Shaw reps at corner. It’s running the ball on 3rd and 8. It’s working the middle of the field in the passing game. It’s continuing to let this young defense improve and dominate.
In fact, it may have been easier on Saturday to put up more points by throwing the ball all over Seattle. But championships are built by running the ball, having a stifling defense, winning the turnover battle and making plays on special teams. And it’s certainly the only way this USC team is going to beat Oregon (maybe twice?) and the rest of the teams on the schedule ahead. This is now Kiffin’s plan, and it puts Matt Barkley in the position of being the ultimate game manager, making plays in the passing game in a more balanced fashion.
As always, what’s good in theory doesn’t always work in execution. The plan may be solid, but it doesn’t mean the Trojans can pull it off. After all, while USC looked brilliant at times in all three phases of the game, it also showed liabilities in all three.
The offense runs for 200-plus yards but was also the plagued by numerous drive-killing penalties, seemed confused at times on line assignments and only converted 2-of-13 on third downs.
The defense had one of its most impressive outings of the season, with constant pressure on Keith Price and a swarming defensive front that shut down Washington’s previously successful running game. But it also allowed Washington to find holes in the secondary and move the ball into scoring position. If it wasn’t for turnovers -- which the defense deserves credit for -- the flight home may have been a long one. And special teams, shining brightly with a punt block for touchdown, also can’t seem to execute a field goal, cover a kickoff or catch a punt with consistency.
But maybe, just maybe, it will all come together for these Trojans at the right time. If history is any indicator, this is the time of the year the Trojans start to gel. If they do it again, these few weeks in the middle of the season that most will remember as the Trojans looking mediocre and simply surviving a few middle-of-the-pack teams, may really be something much more. Could it be that USC fans are watching the development of a championship team? It won’t take long to find out.
On to Colorado.