Posted: Tuesday November 6, 2012 6:26AM ; Updated: Tuesday November 6, 2012 2:05PM
Pete Thamel
Pete Thamel>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

Kiffin deserves blame for USC's slide (cont.)

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Matt Barkley was the preseason Heisman favorite, but an inconsistent season and three losses have knocked him out of the race.
Matt Barkley was the preseason Heisman favorite, but an inconsistent season and three losses have knocked him out of the race.
Cal Sport Media

When Lane Kiffin re-entered the college ranks as head coach at Tennessee four years ago, having his father -- a respected NFL assistant -- as a coordinator appeared to be one of the strengths of his staff. But Monte Kiffin could now be viewed as a liability as he's shown an inability to adjust to college spread offenses.

"Spreading the field all the time seems to be a little bit of an issue for him," said one NFL executive.

Monte Kiffin, 72, said he's not concerned about his job -- "You can't think that way," he says -- but both he and his son said something needs to change with the Trojans' defense, which is ranked 65th in the nation.

"We have to re-evaluate the whole thing," Monte Kiffin said.

USC has tried to recruit more agile players to combat spread teams. Monte Kiffin called around the Pac-12 last year looking for clues on how to stop the spread, according to one coach. This past summer, Monte even visited the coaches at Nevada to try to figure out how to stop the zone read, a foundation of Oregon's blur offense. The Ducks' fast-paced attack has concepts from the pistol offense, which was invented by Wolf Pack coach Chris Ault.

The biggest indictment of the Trojans' inability to stop Oregon on Saturday night came from Monte Kiffin himself. He said Oregon didn't do anything fancy on offense or even run the option. They simply ran tailback Kenjon Barner on stretch run play after stretch run play. USC had no adjustments or answers as Barner gained 321 yards and averaged 8.4 per carry.

"We just have to do a better job coaching," Monte Kiffin said. "I take full responsibility."

*****

Matt Barkley entered the season as the clear Heisman favorite, but he's now out of the race after throwing 10 interceptions, three more than all last season. He's tossed two picks in each of USC's three losses, and a phantom pass interference call saved him from a third interception on Saturday night. Barkley's completion percentage is down nearly four full points from last year -- 65.2 from 69.1 -- and his celebratory return press conference and media coronation as the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft seems like ancient history.

"People are going in there and saying, 'This is the top guy?'" an NFL personnel director said. "All the writers anointed him the top pick before the season began. But the scouts come out of there saying, 'He really doesn't make great decisions. He's not a polished guy like an Andrew Luck or a Matt Ryan.' He's got some flaws. He's just not the king."

Barkley said he has no regrets about returning for his senior season despite the three losses and deflated statistics. When asked by SI.com if he feels he's improved this year, Barkley said, "In certain ways, yeah. Absolutely. In the things that I wanted to. There's always going to be stuff that I'm going to have to get better at."

Some opposing coaches have been impressed with Barkley, complimenting his quick release, accuracy and ability to evade the rush. He has 30 touchdown passes and threw for 484 yards and five touchdowns in the Oregon loss. Others have been more skeptical, crediting the talent around him including the precocious receiver tandem of Marqise Lee and Robert Woods.

"He's a product of a system," an opposing coach said. "He's got a lot around him. Andrew Luck didn't have nearly the same skill around him. He did it despite not having first-round receivers."

The preseason narrative of the golden haired USC quarterback returning to school to revive a program from its scandal-tainted past is now shredded.

Barkley's two interceptions against Oregon looked like freshman mistakes, a horrible decision on a ball in the end zone and a rushed throw after he evaded pressure. Those aren't the types of throws that seniors make, especially in a game where USC couldn't afford to waste any possessions.

Consider the NFL much more skeptical, especially after Matt Leinart's career has flat lined and Mark Sanchez's is in decline.

"There's something about a USC guy," said an NFL executive. "Most, or a lot, never go over the top at the next level. I don't know if it's the lights or being used to being babied or pampered in a pro environment."

*****

Things will likely get worse for the Trojans next season before they get better. Barkley graduates and will be replaced by an inexperienced starter, likely Max Wittek. USC has two more seasons with 75 scholarship players, as a lack of depth has clearly haunted them season. That won't change going forward.

"I don't think we'll have depth for a while," Monte Kiffin said. "That's what people don't realize that the scholarship [limit] is, the numbers are down. In the old days, I'm sure SC had guys stockpiled."

The brightest hope for USC's future is Lee, who had a jaw dropping 877 all-purpose yards in the Trojans' losses to Arizona and Oregon. Lee is the country's most electric player, could end up as a Heisman finalist this season and will be a favorite for the Heisman in 2013.

But USC's reliance on Lee (the Trojans also use him on kickoffs) also underscores its depth issues. "I think that's caught up with them a little bit," said an opposing coach, noting the poor performances against up-tempo offenses.

At Lane Kiffin's two previous coaching stops, the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Volunteers, he baffled everyone by somehow landing better jobs despite not accomplishing much. With a team in shambles, his father looking overmatched and his quarterback failing to live up to expectations, it's unlikely that Kiffin will fail upwards again.

Kiffin's Mercedes stayed parked outside the USC locker room until long after the game on Saturday night. He'll need more than a sleek getaway car to escape the mess in Troy.

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