EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Parity is alive in college football, but a few teams have absurd collections of talent that put them on another level. Think Alabama's defense, Alabama's offensive line. Think LSU's defense. Think USC's passing game. They're bigger and stronger, faster, smarter and just more talented than everyone else. They can execute poorly and still overwhelm the opposition.
Yet … Lane Kiffin is coaching scared.
"The main focus I'm pretty sure was not trying to force it, to take what they give us," receiver Marqise Lee said of the game plan against Syracuse, a 42-29 win for USC.
The Trojans are supposed to be dictating the pace, not sitting back and taking what defenses give them. Matt Barkley is the most celebrated quarterback in college football right now. Kiffin has said Lee, a sophomore, will be the best receiver in USC history, and he has a teammate, Robert Woods, who caught 111 passes and was a Biletnikoff Award finalist for the top receiver last year. You have Barkley's intelligence and pocket-passing ability, Lee's jaw-dropping explosiveness and Woods' great hands, plus a deep tight-end pool led by Xavier Grimble. It's like playing the Patriots. No team can match that right now.
Yet … handoff to Silas Redd. Handoff to Curtis McNeal. Bubble screen to Lee. Bubble screen to Woods. Bubble screen to Lee. Handoff. Bubble screen. What about taking it to a defense with two of the nation's best receivers?
"We tried it, and he threw it to the other team," Kiffin said, referring to Barkley's one interception on a deep post against the Orange. "We tried to get some momentum in the game. And if you come into an environment like [last Saturday], just kind of weird, on the road and a team that it's their Super Bowl … I thought it was more critical that we were getting completions as it happened. And trying to run the ball, instead of all of a sudden throwing downfield, and turnovers happen or sacks cause fumbles."
This Saturday night at Stanford, USC will try to continue to shift the balance of power in the Pac-12 back to the South. The Trojans beat Oregon last year, but they've dropped three straight and four of the last five to the Cardinal. No, Stanford isn't the same team that it was the last three years with Andrew Luck. The Cardinal are an enigma at this point, having beaten San Jose State only 20-17 before trouncing Duke 50-13, despite getting out-gained 385-373. Stanford will try to grind it out on the ground with Stepfan Taylor, and it will hope to stand a chance against Lee and Woods on defense. For a triple-overtime game, the result against the pass wasn't bad last year, and emerging safety Ed Reynolds could make life difficult for the Trojans downfield.
On one level, maybe it makes some sense to play it conservative. Depth on the USC defense is thin, and Stanford is the type of team that could grind the clock and keep the Trojans' defense on the field for a while. A repeat of last year's shootout is unlikely, barring a breakout game from quarterback Josh Nunes against a vulnerable USC secondary. When Syracuse pushed the tempo with Ryan Nassib and pressured USC's corners, the Orange had success.
But the USC skill players are far and away the team's big advantage over any team in the country. Stanford's good, but not good enough to adequately defend a USC offense that goes on the attack vertically instead of horizontally.With Barkley returning in pursuit of a championship and USC eligible for postseason play again, the Trojans were anointed last December. They were the AP's preseason No. 1 -- Barkley would get his championship, Kiffin would prove his coaching acumen and Troy would rise again. Narratives abound.
Yet … USC looked ordinary last week. Barkley threw six touchdown passes, making for what will be one of the most misleading statistics all year. It's not that he played poorly; we just don't have any idea how well he could have played, had Kiffin not been afraid of making mistakes. Barkley's 23 completions averaged only 8.1 yards. Lee, a big-play receiver who had 10 catches for 197 yards in the opener against Hawaii, caught 11 passes for just 66 yards -- almost the same as McNeal's rushing stats (11 carries for 63 yards). Little went downfield. Kiffin limited the offense, perhaps masking deficiencies on the offensive line, as Barkley operated with quick drops, tossing slants and countless bubble screens to Woods and Lee, who used their talent to keep the chains moving.
That's not the brash, hotshot Kiffin we've come to know, the one who went for it on fourth-and-12 at the Syracuse 25-yard line early in the game, the one who randomly goes for two, the one who trolls Urban Meyer and leaves a semi-riot in his wake at Tennessee.
The defense isn't good enough for USC to sit back and passively grind out wins. Not against Oregon, which seemingly could put up 50 in a half against anyone outside of Alabama and LSU. Maybe not Saturday against Stanford.
Maybe Kiffin is playing it close to the vest, doing the minimum to beat inferior teams before unleashing the full scope of the offense against the Stanfords and Oregons of the world.
Well, we've seen this before. We've seen an untouchable USC lose to Oregon State, lose to Washington, lose to Arizona State. When you have Barkley, Woods and Lee, there's never a reason to play scared. The superior physical talent will beat most teams. But all those championship dreams? They're moot if Kiffin isn't Kiffin, if Kiffin doesn't let Barkley be Barkley, if USC forgets that it's USC.