Kiffin's Trojans still lack landmark win

LOS ANGELES -- For the first time since Lane came back and Monte got to town, the Kiffins had a chance to feel the energy that used to propel Pete Carroll up the tunnel, sprinting, butt-slapping and fist-pumping his way to the locker room.

This town feeds off excitement. It has made a pretty good living of packaging the stuff and selling it to the rest of the country throughout the years. Carroll bartered in the stuff.

But since Lane Kiffin came back to USC and joined his own little cloud of public mistrust to the cold wind blowing around this program, even the wins have felt ho-hum, with Kiffin as the glowering sideline presence in a visor.

Saturday was different. It might have injected the old electricity into a program that has lost its crackle. It might have made the Kiffins popular among USC fans after two years of grumbling and wondering when the tide would turn.

USC had the No. 4 team in the country in trouble, the No. 1 quarterback in a generation looking fallible, the most machinelike offense in college football looking as though it met its match. There were 93,607 people in the stadium, the most to see a game at the Coliseum in three years. All through those seemingly endless overtimes, the roar kept coming.

"The crowd was electric and really helped us out," Kiffin said. "It was great to have that back."

But Robert Woods decided to run all the way across the field to pick up a couple more yards, running out the clock; the USC defense finally ran out of wind chasing after Luck and getting clocked by his linemen; and tailback Curtis McNeal fumbled the ball to end the game in triple overtime, making USC a 56-48 loser to Stanford.

Same old story.

It doesn't feel as though one result puts Kiffin and his coaches back at square one in this long project of rebuilding a program. Even after that avalanche of points inflated by college football's overtime format, Monte Kiffin's defense had some signature moments. USC had a more effective running game than Stanford, and the Cardinal have built their identity around owning the line of scrimmage.

If anybody watched that game and came away thinking there was a massive divide between Stanford's program and USC's, he must have been watching a different game than I was.

It's just that things would have had so much more zing, lingered longer on the tongue, if the Trojans had finished the job.

"It's good we held them to the wire," quarterback Matt Barkley said. "Moral victory, you could say, or whatever, but that's not good enough for us. All our guys are disappointed, because we know we had them."

USC had one senior, fullback Rhett Ellison, who contributed appreciably to the offense's effort Saturday night. It had three defensive starters. Stanford had three seniors on offense and quarterback Andrew Luck, a fourth-year junior who plays like a 10-year NFL vet. It also had four senior starters on defense. If you don't keep reminding yourself, you can forget that USC is one of the youngest teams in the conference. Its progress used to seem so inevitable.

But you can't bash the Kiffins until you recognize what they're up against. They've had 21 games to get their message across to a group of 19 and 20-year-olds who know they can't play in a bowl game. It's hard to watch the past three games and think it's not getting through. It just might take a little more time until it shows up in marquee wins, which so far have been hard to come by. Traveling to South Bend and winning by two touchdowns remains the signature moment of the Kiffin era.

Eventually, that won't satisfy legions of fans sated by top-10 rankings and championship shots under Carroll. For now, the past two weeks should give the Kiffins the cover to do the work that needs to be done.

Lane Kiffin has no choice but to pick out the glimmers Saturday night. He looked as dejected as he's looked in the past two seasons after the game, but he spoke in hopeful terms.

"I wish we would have won the game, but you're playing a team that's got the longest winning streak in the country and has beaten everybody they've played by more than 25 points. It was an extremely competitive game as far as effort," Kiffin said.

On the X's and O's, you rarely hear people grumble much about either Kiffin. Monte Kiffin used to make a living stopping the best quarterbacks in the world. He didn't forget everything he'd learned in 25 years in the NFL when he got to USC two Januarys ago. The Trojans did some things nobody had done against Luck. Mainly, they knocked him on his back. Luck had been sacked twice for 4 yards before Saturday. He got sacked twice for 20 yards on Saturday.

Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor said he "didn't expect a battle" against the Trojans on Saturday, but he got one, in part because of pressures Monte Kiffin schemed up.

"We knew they were going to come with some stuff we didn't know, and we weren't ready for it," Taylor said.

The next time USC coaches put their players in position to close a deal of this magnitude, it will be on the players.

Mark Saxon covers USC football for ESPNLosAngeles.com.