Perplexing offense still holding USC back

LOS ANGELES -- It shouldn’t be this difficult.

When you have a defense playing as well as USC’s is this season, it shouldn’t be losing to Washington State and having to struggle to a hang-onto-your-fingernails victory over Utah State, both at home, no less.

The Trojans might have the most deceiving 3-1 record in college football at the moment, considering they haven’t played a quality opponent on the road yet and two of their three victories have come against marshmallow soft Hawaii and Boston College.

What their most recent 17-14 escape proved is that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast’s almost unbelievably-revived defense is good enough to keep USC in every football game the rest of the way.

But will it matter if the offense can’t shake off the cobwebs that seem to have completely engulfed it?

The screams for coach Lane Kiffin’s job calmed down a bit after a semi-soothing win over BC, but they were back at full roar late Saturday. The reaction is understandable, since it is Kiffin who remains in charge of the sluggish offense, not to mention the play-calling that remains as puzzling as ever.

The undercurrent of dissatisfaction has actually reached out even dangerously deeper than to just the fan base. The Trojans’ list of early 2014 commitments is lagging far behind past seasons, with hardly any four- or five-star kids on the list.

Kiffin might still be able to turn that momentum around, of course, if he can find some way to juice up an offense that could never find its rhythm against Utah State. Tre Madden ran decently enough at tailback, but the running game was never complemented by play-action passes.

At least the Trojans throw downfield occasionally now, but almost always to Marqise Lee exclusively, which would be fine if it was the old, Biletnikoff Award-winning Marqise. The problem is, he hasn’t shown up yet this season.

The scary part is Utah State spent most of the game single-covering Lee and Nelson Agholor, and Kiffin still couldn’t figure out a way to let Cody Kessler take advantage of it. Some of it has to do with an offensive line that simply isn’t up to USC standards. But then, what do you expect from a kid like left tackle Chad Wheeler, who hadn’t played a down of college football until four weeks ago?

It’s too bad, because with just some normal offensive help, Pendergast’s defense would be getting the national recognition it so richly deserves.

These kids are playing as if they’re angry, and maybe they are. You’d be angry, too, forced to stand there on the sideline and watch the offense continually fail to move the ball, even when given great field position. Maybe what these young defenders really need is a catchy nickname.

Remember The Wild Bunch? We should start calling this feisty group The Riled Bunch.

Leonard Williams and Morgan Breslin led the way on Saturday, swallowing up the same Aggies who had scored 122 points in their previous two games. Quarterback Chuckie Keeton, who throws more fastballs than Aroldis Chapman, was actually on the edge of Heisman consideration before the Trojans sacked him four times and rendered him generally ineffective.

This USC defensive line is as good as any in the country, Hayes Pullard and Lamar Dawson are all over the field at linebacker, and the secondary, buoyed by safeties Dion Bailey and Su’a Cravens, has been terrific.

When you think back only a year ago and recall this same defense was trampled for 730 yards by Oregon, Pendergast easily qualifies as the Trojans’ Newcomer of the Year.

So the defense is more than good enough to play with the heavyweight teams still left on the schedule. But can that translate to any meaningful victories if the offense continues to play like confused lightweights?

A month into another perplexing Kiffin-led season, that is the one overriding question no one at USC is ready to answer.