This win, this season, not in the script

LOS ANGELES -- Lane Kiffin and Matt Barkley would like to give you what you want. They really would. They know you came into this season expecting a fast-paced action flick, and they’ve been giving you a slow-moving melodrama as of late.

There wasn’t supposed to be much character development in this Hollywood blockbuster. There wasn’t supposed to be a tragedy that the protagonist was supposed to come back from and obstacles along the way to make you doubt if he’d ever make it. This was supposed to be a simple, non-stop thriller with enough fireworks and points to cause the Coliseum’s aging scoreboard to explode.

Of course, that’s not the way award-winning films usually play out, and that’s clearly not the way this USC season is playing out.

This isn’t to say Barkley and the Trojans are in store for a Hollywood ending, but perhaps it’s time to adjust our expectations for this team.

As much as we expected USC to roll through the competition this season and pick up right where they left off after last season’s 50-0 drubbing of UCLA, that’s simply not where this team is now. Who knows if they’ll ever get there? But holding this team to those standards simply isn’t realistic at this time.

Kiffin and Barkley would like to be there right now, but they know it took them about seven weeks into last season before the offense became the juggernaut we remember. Kiffin wanted to smile and celebrate USC’s 27-9 win over Cal on Saturday, especially after last week’s 21-14 loss at Stanford. But it was hard to get overly excited.

Kiffin knows he coaches in a city that places more weight on style than substance. He wasn’t oblivious to the more than 10,000 empty seats at the Coliseum and how quiet those fans that did show up were for much of the game.

“It’s obviously not as fun,” Kiffin said. “It’s fun winning 50-0, but that doesn’t happen every week, unfortunately. So some games are going to be like this.”

Games like this are actually a by-product of those 50-0 games, which are dominated by Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. Teams are now so afraid of allowing Woods and Lee to take over a game that they’ll focus their entire defense on removing them from the equation (read: removing them as much as possible) and allowing USC’s other skill players to make plays.

On Saturday, that opened up things for USC’s rushing attack, which combined for 296 yards and one touchdown. Silas Redd had 159 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries and Curtis McNeal had 116 yards on 10 carries.

“We’re really seeing a change in defenses almost every week,” Kiffin said. “We’re seeing a complete game plan about No. 9 [Lee] and No. 2 [Woods]. One of the good things about throwing those guys the ball so much earlier in the year is people do what they did today. They spend the whole week trying to take away those two guys and it opens up your running game.”

While Stanford came at Barkley in waves last week, Cal’s defense essentially stayed back and forced him to throw underneath and hand the ball off to his two tailbacks. Sure, he would have loved to air it out, but this wasn’t the time or the place for that.

“I’m not looking every week to get stats or to have a flashy game,” said Barkley, who completed 22 of 34 passes for 192 yards and two touchdowns and had a pair of interceptions. “I’m happy with how the offense performed to a certain extent, but we left a lot of points on the board in the first half. There were little things here and there. If defenses are going to stay back and play Cover 2 shell and force us to run, that’s what we have to do and that’s what we did today.”

Almost as impressive as USC’s running attack was the Trojans’ defense, which put up their best performance this season, holding Cal to 73 yards rushing and 250 yards of total offense, while recording seven sacks and two interceptions. USC defensive end Morgan Breslin had three sacks, which was the most for a Trojan since Rey Maualuga during the 2008 Rose Bowl and his 4.5 tackles was the most for a USC defensive player since Lawrence Jackson in 2007.

“We were ticked off,” USC assistant head coach Monte Kiffin said. “We felt like we should've played better last week. You can say, 'Well, our offense wasn't very good.' Well, Stanford wasn't the second-coming of the New Orleans Saints, all due respect. They're a good, well-coached team. But that quarterback, he hasn't started a lot of games. So we needed to play better.”

USC certainly played better on Saturday, but it might not matter, yet, to those who still expect USC to win with a certain style and swagger for which they have grown accustomed. USC is looking to win games, not style points right now. But they’ll be the first to admit Saturday’s win isn’t the kind they’d like to duplicate moving forward this season.

“If you’re leaving points on the board, it’s not a recipe that you want,” Barkley said. “I don’t think we’re trying to win a certain way. I think we’re trying to score as many points as possible, so hopefully we don’t repeat the way we won today.”