USC a team without a quarterback

LOS ANGELES -- It began as a slow, rumbling chant in the student section positioned behind the USC bench in the fourth quarter.

"Fire Kiffin!"

It mushroomed into a deafening chant that engulfed what was left of the 77,823 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Saturday night as the Washington State Cougars defeated the USC Trojans 10-7.

"Fire Kiffin!"

The chant had been building for much of the game as Kiffin was booed as he walked off the field at halftime when the score was tied 7-7 and throughout the game as he continued to call one draw play after another on third and long.

"You can't worry about that, it is what it is," Kiffin said afterward. "I think I heard those before the game started actually in warm-ups."

Kiffin smiled as he answered the question, but he knows the way this season is going just two weeks in, and the way his offense has been playing, he won't be smiling for long.

"When you don't play well, of course it falls on the head coach," Kiffin said. "That's part of the job. We obviously weren't prepared well enough on offense."

Leading into Saturday's game, Kiffin was roundly criticized for not publically naming a starting quarterback, but after two games of playing quarterback carousel maybe it's beginning to make sense. Maybe Kiffin has waited on naming a quarterback because he simply doesn't have one.

Sure, Cody Kessler has started the last two games and Max Wittek has come on in relief the last two games, and both quarterbacks will presumably resume their seemingly never-ending quarterback battle this week. But does it really matter who lines up under center for USC this season?

For the first time in nearly 20 years, USC doesn't have a legitimate starting quarterback.

The battle between Kessler and Wittek isn't so much a battle to decide who the best quarterback is, but a battle to decide who is best equipped to hand the ball off on second and long and throw a bubble screen on third and long. Kiffin's play-calling will -- and should -- come under fire for a second consecutive week. He has handled his quarterbacks with kid gloves on and off the field and didn't give either one the feeling that he had confidence in them because, well, he probably doesn't. Don't expect that to change any time soon.

Kiffin has decided to lean on his defense and running game this season. He ran the ball 42 times for 139 yards and was more than content to call conservative plays on third downs, converting just 3 of 13 attempts. The difference in the game came when Kessler threw an interception to Washington State's Damante Horton that was returned 70 yards for a touchdown.

Kessler completed 8 of 13 passes for 41 yards and one interception in the first half, and Wittek completed 3 of 8 passes for 13 yards and one interception in the second half. The longest pass for either quarterback was eight yards.

"I've never heard of stats like we had today," Kiffin said. "That's very discouraging and obviously that falls on me."

USC's 54 yards passing and its 193 total yards were its fewest in a game since 1998. The seven points USC scored against Washington State were its fewest against the Cougars since 1941.

There's a fine line between conservative play-calling and calling a game scared. Kiffin's game plan leaned heavily toward the latter for much of the game. That's probably for good reason. He doesn't seem to trust either of his current quarterbacks to handle the same playbook and same play calls he used for Matt Barkley or Matt Leinart.

Kiffin didn't all of a sudden forget how to call plays at the ripe old age of 37. He simply doesn't have a quarterback capable of doing what he wants on offense. Of course, developing talent and catering your offense to the skill set of your players are essential ingredients to being a successful college coach so this isn't an excuse for Kiffin. He has had eight months to develop an offensive system catered to the strengths of Kessler and or Wittek and can't even pick a starting quarterback two weeks into the season.

The timing of Kiffin's quarterback dilemma couldn't have come at a worse time for the beleaguered coach. Kiffin's claim to fame has always been his ability to call plays on offense. The end of the opening paragraph of his bio in the USC media guide states Kiffin "is known for his high football IQ, as well as for being a master playcaller." There was certainly nothing masterful about Kiffin's play-calling Saturday, and as long as Kessler or Wittek are his quarterbacks that probably won't change.

Kiffin, who has always had an All-American quarterback at USC, is currently coaching for his job without so much as a quarterback he's comfortable calling his starter publicly, let alone comfortable calling a pass play of more than 10 yards downfield.

While USC's defense has benefited from the hiring of new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast, who replaced Kiffin's father, Monte, Lane never seriously considered giving up play-calling duties this season. If he was going down, he was going to go down with his nose buried in his oversized, laminated play card. Nobody knows better than Kiffin that USC fans are accustomed to a certain style of play. They want a fast, aggressive defense and an up-tempo, high-scoring offense. He helped usher in that era of Trojans football when he came to USC with Pete Carroll in 2001, and this year's version of the team couldn't be any more removed from those teams.

"That's not what Trojan football is," Kessler said. "They expect a lot from us as they should. We're USC and we can't play like that."

If they do continue playing that way, the chants that engulfed the Coliseum on Saturday night will only continue to grow this season and swallow the coach before it's over.