Coordinator shuffle brings Kiffin, USC offense to crossroads

Kiffin made his name as USC's offensive coordinator. (US Presswire)

Confirming what we already knew, USC officially announced the firing of offensive coordinator Kennedy Polamalu on Sunday, a move as unpopular among Trojan players as it was baffling. Whatever the failings of the offense as a whole, they were not Polamalu's; Despite his title, the veteran assistant and USC alum was responsible primarily for the running backs and, more important, recruiting, the reason his departure was kept under wraps until the day after the latest class officially joined the fold on National Signing Day. The job of running the offense, as everyone knows, belongs to head coach Lane Kiffin. But soon enough now, we'll find out if that should be belonged.

Polamalu's departure is the latest in a predictable exodus from the staff since the end of the season, having been preceded by defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, linebackers coach Scottie Hazelton and secondary coach Marvin Sanders. At least some of those exits, if not all, are believed to be part of a house-cleaning meant to appease athletic director Pat Haden, who is still saying all the right things about his head coach on the record but is also eager for a turnaround on the heels of an unmitigated flop in 2012, one of the most dismal seasons ever turned in by a team that began the season atop one of the major polls.

The changing of the guard defensively will begin with the new defensive coordinator, Clancy Pendergast. With the door suddenly open for a new offensive coordinator as well -- potentially one who serves in more than name only and could encroach on his boss' autonomy as the resident play-caller -- the new question is, just how much of the scheme will remain in Kiffin's hands? And how much control will he have over the answer?

Kiffin originally made his name as a first-year coordinator in 2005, calling plays for the Matt Leinart/Reggie Bush-led juggernaut that averaged 49 points per game and came within seconds of the national championship. He only spent one more year in that role before moving on to his first head coaching gig with the Oakland Raiders, and he's called the plays at every stop since. Until the new hire is official and parameters are set, we're left with speculation, which, when it comes to rumors that Kiffin might yield some authority over his baby, is based two assumptions: A) That the offense broken, and B) That new blood on the staff necessarily means any kind of significant reform.

November's meltdown notwithstanding, the first point is debatable. At full strength, the offense was generally as good as advertised, even when it wasn't good enough to overcome a defense allergic to the spread.

Against Arizona, the Trojans put up 36 points on 618 yards of total offense, only to watch the Wildcats rip off 28 consecutive points in the second half of a come-from-behind, 39-36 upset in late October. A week later, the offense hung 51 points on Oregon in the course of another 600-yard afternoon but never stood a chance opposite arguably the worst defensive performance in USC history, one that resulted in a 62-51 loss.

After a disastrous start against UCLA, the Trojans still finished with 513 yards on more than seven yards per snap, and they nearly rallied out of a 24-0 hole before running out of gas in a 38-28 defeat. If anything, the most persistent, debilitating flaw was the defense's inability to handle mobile quarterbacks in spread sets, which is certainly the top priority for Pendergast.

In the same vein, even when the offense was at its worst, at least part of the blame could be shifted to key injuries. In their first loss, a 21-14 flop at Stanford in September, the offensive line crumbled in the second half with All-Pac-12 center Khaled Holmes sidelined by injury, leaving Barkley and the running backs to fend for themselves.

Anemic efforts against Notre Dame in the regular season finale and Georgia Tech in the bowl game came with Barkley nursing an injured shoulder and his replacement, redshirt freshman Max Wittek, looking very much like a redshirt freshman seeing his first significant action. It was never so dire when the starting lineup was intact.

Excluding the two games Barkley missed, in fact, the 2012 Trojans averaged slightly more yards and points per game than the 2011 edition that was hailed as one of the most explosive attacks in the nation; they also averaged more yards per play for the season and had more plays covering at least 20 yards. They were substantially the group they were supposed to be.

On the other hand, the two areas that clearly declined were two of the most critical, converting on third downs and taking care of the ball. The third-down rate, one of the best in the nation in 2011, plummeted last year to a meager 34.2 percent -- and barely cracked 30 percent in losses. (That number suffers most heavily from the loss at Stanford, where USC was 0-for-12 on third downs.) Worse, the Trojans committed a ghastly 34 giveaways, more than all but three other teams nationally, and finished in the red in five of six losses.

Barkley, so averse to mistakes as a junior, more than doubled his interceptions from seven to 15; Wittek, with five picks in just 69 attempts, was much worse. As a team, USC was minus–11 in turnover margin over the last five games of the regular season alone.

Given that turnover margin is a notoriously volatile statistic, there's good reason to assume the revamped offense this fall can avoid such a self-defeating fate. Which brings us to the second question: As long as Kiffin is in the driver's seat, just how revamped can the offense be? The starting quarterback, whether it's Wittek, fellow sophomore Cody Kessler or incoming freshman Max Browne, will be new, as will the nominal coordinator and the offensive line coach, who are likely to be the same person.

Unless that person actually has a hand on the wheel, though, the changes are largely cosmetic: Otherwise, the buck still stops with Kiffin, who insisted last December that he planned to retain play-calling duties in the face of mounting criticism as the season unraveled. And aside from a mental note to keep the ball on the ground more often to protect his young QB -- with Barkley, in each of the past two years, the Trojans passed more often than they ran -- neither the philosophy nor the playbook figures to be subject to much change.

What is not debatable is that Kiffin's job hinges on reviving the sense of USC as one of the bullies of the Pacific time zone, which does not exist anymore for a program that's dropped four in a row against Stanford, three out of four to Oregon, two out of three to Notre Dame and, with a division title on the line, its only game against UCLA under the Bruins' new head coach, Jim Mora.

Less than five years removed from their seventh consecutive conference title, the Trojans aren't feared in Los Angeles.

Had they not faced such towering expectations heading into last season, it might have been possible to give some quarter to the ongoing effects of NCAA sanctions. But the disappointment came too soon: If 2012 was supposed to be the year the stars aligned, 2013 was always going to be the year they yielded (if only briefly) to the hard reality of major scholarship restrictions.

The difference now is that Kiffin has to face it without a net, and quite possibly with someone else pulling some of the strings.

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