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T.J. SIMERS

USC's win over Cal is a reminder of what's missing

Where has the Trojans' killer instinct, as much a trademark in the Pete Carroll era as his relentless credo to compete, gone?

October 13, 2011|T.J. Simers
  • USC quarterback Matt Barkley scrambles from the pressure of California defensive lineman Aaron Tipoti in the first half Thursday night in San Francisco.
USC quarterback Matt Barkley scrambles from the pressure of California… (Jose Carlos Fajardo / McClatchy-Tribune )

From San Francisco -- It was just two years ago that USC was coached by Pete Carroll in this same stadium — his final game. Now Trojans football is nowhere near as much fun.

Maybe Carroll's act had become tired with the NCAA weighing heavy on the future of USC football and he had to go, but how about a sign of life as things start anew?

Where's the killer instinct, as much a trademark in the Carroll era as his relentless credo to compete?

How about Lane Kiffin coming across as more than just an offensive cheerleader and coordinator, as his title is "head coach."

By now, given the buildup and expectations going back several years, shouldn't Matt Barkley's name be mentioned in the same sentence as the Heisman Trophy?

So why not?

Unless something goes terribly awry, I don't think Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon are going to roll over like dogs as Cal did Thursday night.

I'll tell you how horrible Cal is: It made Monte Kiffin's defense look good. Now that's horrible.

USC outscored Cal in the first half over the last two years, 62-0, and Monte might want to consider retiring on such a high note, or giving up his defensive duties and becoming special teams advisor to his son.

In fact the only Kiffin who really has some explaining to do is the kid, who coaches USC like some people play Madden.

Instead of going for the no-brainer, a 25-yard field goal on the Trojans' first possession of the game, Kiffin had USC line up in that wacky formation high school teams like to try.

"It was there," he explained later, and he reminds me of that movie where the kid could see dead people.

Kiffin had a group of offensive players lined up to the left, the center and quarterback in the middle of the field and another group of players to the right.

But instead of breaking into field-goal formation, USC had the center pass the ball to Rhett Ellison, who reacted like everyone else in the joint: Why is that guy passing the ball to me?

Ellison fumbled the ball, fell on it and Cal took possession.

Why not settle for the field goal? "That's no fun," Kiffin said with a laugh. "We're on ESPN; we've got to do something."

Too bad most folks didn't turn off the game at that point, saving a night for something other than inept football.

Yes, they should have known. This was after Kiffin had wide receiver recruit George Farmer make his college debut as a running back on the six-yard line — losing the first four yards of his career.

Who is calling these plays?

Cal is just dreadful and USC was struggling to beat the Bears, a 21-point win oh so deceiving. Cal fumbled four times in the first half, lost two and had two passes intercepted. It should have been 60-0.

In the second half, Cal missed an extra point, signaled for a fair catch of a punt at its four and had another pass intercepted deep in its territory.

USC won the second half, 10-9, with a late score.

If UCLA fails to beat Cal this month, fire Rick Neuheisel on the spot. For that matter, why does Jeff Tedford still have a job?

The last great thing the Cal coach did was beat Carroll's Trojans in overtime — in 2003.

And speaking of Carroll, when he was here he treated Barkley almost like a son, in some cases folks wondering why he wasn't harder on the kid. But almost everyone agreed Barkley would be really good one day.

I know he set a school passing record a week ago, taking advantage of the speed of USC's receivers to turn short gains into long ones, but has Barkley developed as much as everyone thought he might?

The kid gets high marks as a leader, but so does Tim Tebow, and he's not an NFL quarterback no matter what the Broncos might say.

I would imagine most Trojans fans would have wagered three years ago that Barkley would become one of the all-time great Trojans quarterbacks and at least a cinch to get Heisman consideration.

And that was before getting to work with an offensive-minded Kiffin the past 19 games.

But something is missing. Maybe it's a running game. Maybe it's no defense. Maybe the Trojans as a team just lack what it takes to close out opponents.

Maybe he makes a national statement in upcoming games against Notre Dame, Stanford and Oregon, but if not, doesn't Barkley's USC career go down as a disappointment?

"I wouldn't say that," said Kiffin, who offered a passionate defense of Barkley's play. "No bowl game puts a cloud over his career [he actually played in the Nut Bowl under Carroll], but that's not his doing.

"I was here for the three Heisman winners we had, and they had the benefit of a dominating defense and great players all around them. I think Barkley is every bit as good as those guys.

"He goes against Andrew Luck last year, and he's right there. He can't go in on defense … hey, the Heisman is a hard thing to win; you can't do it by yourself."

The way everyone talked about Barkley three years ago, there was reason to think one day he could do it all by himself.

OK, so USC is 5-1 and Barkley gets credit for that. An unimpressive 5-1, but these aren't your same Trojans.

They will one day match Carroll's great run if Kiffin is to be believed, but it's going to take more sizzle and folks having more fun to think any such thing possible.

I don't see it yet, and don't see what I would expect from a quarterback about to turn pro.

But as Uncle Pete would say, here we go. Bring on the big-time competition and let's see what happens.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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