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93rd ROSE BOWL | USC 32, MICHIGAN 18

Kiffin puts aside redemption talk

After a vindicating performance, USC offensive coordinator doesn't aim at critics.

January 02, 2007|David Wharton | Times Staff Writer

Hurrying off the field at the Rose Bowl, bits of confetti kicking up at his feet, Lane Kiffin might have said, "I told you so."

The USC offensive coordinator, a lightning rod for criticism all season, had presided over a stunning turnaround, his sleepy offense coming awake with one pass after another.

The Trojans had shifted from idle to hyperdrive in the second half, scoring rapid-fire against the seventh-ranked defense in the nation.

All of it added up to a 32-18 victory Monday over Michigan and, perhaps, a dose of redemption for Kiffin. Except he wasn't interested in proving detractors wrong.

"I don't know," he said. "I'm big enough to take the heat."

Though Kiffin shares the playcalling with assistant head coach Steve Sarkisian, the 31-year-old has drawn a lion's share of the scrutiny.

His youth makes him suspect, and skeptics say he got the job because his father, longtime NFL assistant Monte Kiffin, was Coach Pete Carroll's mentor. They compare him -- unfavorably -- to predecessor Norm Chow, regarded among the top coordinators in the college game.

"Totally unwarranted," Carroll said. "I think it's a residue of the past."

When the USC offense stuttered this season, angry posts appeared on fan message boards claiming Kiffin wasn't patient enough or creative enough or that he lacked a feel for making adjustments.

The grumbling built to a crescendo after a 13-9 loss to rival UCLA last month.

Kiffin shrugs it off.

"I still prepared for Michigan the same way," he said. "Still watched film."

That film showed a defense ranked No. 1 against the rush, yet the Trojans believed they could run the ball. They came into the Rose Bowl with a balanced attack.

Which was a mistake.

After two quarters, USC had 20 rushing yards and a 3-3 tie on the scoreboard. Carroll took the blame.

"I held them back a little bit," he said of Kiffin and Sarkisian. "I didn't want to give up on the running game."

This time, the USC offense adjusted with an all-out attack on Michigan's statistically weaker secondary. After a couple of failed runs at the start of the third quarter, the change was in.

"Zero," Kiffin said of his interest in the ground game after that. "Not going to call any more runs."

For the record, quarterback John David Booty passed on 27 of their next 29 plays, and the two runs were quarterback sneaks.

The results?

A short touchdown pass to Chris McFoy, followed by a 22-yarder to Dwayne Jarrett. When Michigan scored to close the gap to 19-11, Booty found Jarrett for a scoring play of 62 yards, the longest pass play this season.

"They were passing every down, but we couldn't stop them," Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable said.

Throwing so much was a gamble because USC's offensive line had faltered against UCLA and now faced a dangerous Michigan rush.

But this time, early patience with the run set up play-action passes later, and the coaching staff took measures to protect the quarterback.

"They did a good job, kept the tight end in," Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr said. "They moved the pocket very well, with some roll-outs, and with some boots."

Leading by two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, the Trojans didn't let up.

Booty threw to Smith on the left, Jarrett on the right, then to tight end Fred Davis. On the fourth play of the drive, Smith caught a seven-yard pass for a touchdown over the middle.

Game over.

Kiffin shook hands and hugged nearly everyone on the sideline. Players. Kids. Old men. Postings on Internet message boards were already praising him.

Yet afterward, headed for a locker-room celebration, he wasn't interested in claiming even one night's victory over his critics.

That part was left to his head coach.

"It's not fair," Carroll said of the rap on his coordinator. "It's about time somebody said something."

*

david.wharton@latimes.com

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