As the Trojans came out of the Coliseum tunnel for the home opener against Washington State on Saturday they were led by 1981 Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Allen, a symbol of the glory days of USC football.
Unfortunately for the Trojans, that was one of the few highlights on a night when USC struggled on offense and special teams in a disappointing 10-7 loss to the Cougars.
It wasn’t just a run-of the-mill disappointing loss. It was the most shocking loss at the Coliseum since the Trojans fell to Stanford in 2007 despite being 41-point favorites.
What stood out in the loss to the Cougars was the lack of offensive production in the passing game. The USC quarterbacks -- Cody Kessler and Max Wittek -- combined to complete 11 of 21 passes for 54 yards with two interceptions. The longest pass completion for the Trojans in the game was eight yards.
This is a team with the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner in Marqise Lee, who was held to seven catches for 27 yards. The Trojans had only one first down passing and successfully executed only three of 13 third-down conversions, with one of those coming on a penalty. The 54 passing yards, and 193 total yards, were the lowest totals for a USC team since a 1998 loss against Florida State.
“It was obviously a disappointing day for USC football,” Trojans coach Lane Kiffin said. “I’ve never seen stats as bad as we did today. The longest pass play was eight yards, that’s very discouraging and that falls on me so we’re going to fix it.”
Despite the lack of a downfield passing game, the Trojans still had plenty of opportunities to come away with the victory because it’s not like Washington State was tearing up the field either.
The USC defense did a terrific job all night of putting pressure on Cougars quarterback Connor Halliday and limiting him to 215 yards on 26 completions out of 38 attempts. The Trojans intercepted Halliday twice -- including once in the end zone by Torin Harris -- and had four total sacks. The Trojans were particularly effective in stopping the Cougars on the ground as Washington State ended the game with seven net yards rushing.
“It’s tough,” USC outside linebacker Devon Kennard said. “I think everybody in the locker room feels it. Guys are hurting right now. It’s the sign of a close group that’s upset about a loss.”
The defense even led the way for the Trojans only touchdown of the game when a forced fumble by George Uko was recovered by Kennard at the WSU 22-yard line. Kessler was able to punch in a 4-yard touchdown run which gave USC a 7-0 lead but then Kessler gave the score right back when he was intercepted by Cougars cornerback Damante Hornton, who returned the ball 70-yards for a tying touchdown right before halftime.
The score stayed tied until late in the game when Washington State kicked a 41-yard field goal on a drive when the Cougars converted a critical third-down thanks to several missed USC tackles.
“The one play they broke in the fourth quarter to put them in field goal range is going to haunt the defense the most,” Kennard said.
The Trojans also missed opportunities on special teams, with placekicker Andre Heidari having one field goal attempt blocked and missing another attempt wide left. For a team that lost a game by three points, those miscues were notable.
“We have to execute on special teams,” Kiffin said. “They made their field goal and we missed our two.”
There was definitely a bright spot for the Trojans offense with the performance of tailback Tre Madden. In only his second game as a collegiate running back, Madden carried the ball 32 times and accounted for 163 of the Trojans 193 total yards of offense.
“The stats don’t matter to me,” Madden said. “We didn’t have any consistency on offense and any time we only put seven points on the board it’s disappointing.”
Madden -- who also gained 109 yards in the opener against Hawaii last week -- became the first USC tailback since Allen in his Heisman winning season to rush for 100-yards or more in back-to-back games to open the season.
In the end, however, the combination of Madden and the Trojans defense wasn’t enough to prevent the defeat and the USC fans who stayed to the end let their feelings be known as chants of “Fire Kiffin” filled the air as the final seconds of the game ticked away.
“You really can’t worry about that kind of negative reaction from the fans,” Kiffin said. “I’m getting used to it. It is what it is.”
The Trojans will be right back in front of those same fans over the next two weeks with games against Boston College and Utah State, so there will be no hiding for Kiffin and his team. Will the quarterback rotation continue? Will there be an increase in throwing the ball downfield? What will be the energy and emotion of the team moving forward? The answers to these questions and more will be very telling as the Trojans respond to a surprising early season loss.