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BILL PLASCHKE

USC football team needs a kick in the backside

An unsatisfying 19-17 victory over Minnesota underscores that Trojans should quit going for two-point conversion attempts and play a solid game.

September 03, 2011|Bill Plaschke
  • USC receiver Robert Woods eludes Minnesota defenders Brock Vereen (21) and Spencer Reeves after a reception Saturday at the Coliseum.
USC receiver Robert Woods eludes Minnesota defenders Brock Vereen (21)… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)

I mean, seriously, why not just kick the extra point?

What the fans said with thousands of boos, I put in a single question, directing it at Coach Lane Kiffin on Saturday afternoon after an opening win that contained a last straw.

The fans were furious, I was curious: Why did Kiffin approve the attempt of two-point conversions after each of USC's first two touchdowns against Minnesota? The Trojans failed on both and it nearly cost them. Their 19-17 victory felt as sour as last year's opening triumph against Hawaii, where Kiffin pulled the same move after the first three touchdowns, failing twice.

I mean, seriously, enough is enough. Why not just kick the extra point?

Kiffin sighed deeply and shook his head.

"I know," he said, hindsight finally tackling him. "I agree."

Really? Good. I'm holding him to it. If the Trojans want to bring back some of the belief that was lost in front of the smallest opening-day Coliseum crowd in nine years, they can start by stopping with the two-point nonsense.

Such attempts reek of the sort of arrogance that knocked this program to its knees. What seemed swaggering under Pete Carroll just feels silly now. The conversion failures not only occurred on surprise plays, but odd plays, with Rhett Ellison being stopped on a run up the middle and Matt Barkley throwing a rushed pass into the ground.

Many in the crowd of 68,273 loudly booed the attempts, then sarcastically cheered when Kiffin finally ordered a kick after the Trojans' third touchdown.

You think anybody was thinking about those two lost points in the game's final two minutes, when Minnesota began a drive on its 10-yard line with a chance to win the game with a field goal?

Only everybody. As I walked down through the stands to the sidelines at the start of that last push, even ushers were shouting to me about it.

Accompanied by seemingly as many sighs as cheers, a Trojans defense that collapsed three times last year under similar circumstances held this time, with Torin Harris picking off a pass from freshman quarterback Max Shortell to end the game.

After earlier filling with sunlit promise, the stadium emptied with a quiet shudder.

"Way too close,'' Trojans linebacker Dion Bailey said as he walked off the field. ''It feels like we should have beaten them way worse.''

They should have. This should have been a celebration of the season debut of what may become this country's best passing duo, with Barkley completing a school-record 34 passes and Robert Woods catching a school-record 17 of them.

This should have been a blowout. The Trojans scored three touchdowns in the first half, and did not allow a sack; Barkley did not throw an interception, and the defense held the Gophers to barely 300 yards.

But they played recklessly. They gave up a touchdown after botching a fourth-down snap, and gave up a field goal after committing two personal fouls on a Gophers drive, leading to 75 total yards worth of penalties.

They also played oddly. With an inexperienced offensive line and without suspended starting running back Marc Tyler, Kiffin decided to put the ball in the air for nine of the first 13 plays. Although he later admitted this wasn't a fun way to play, he continued to ignore the running game until the Gophers stopped giving Barkley any room. But by then the Trojans had lost their rhythm.

And yes, they played arrogantly, and I don't care if the Trojans were successful on six of 11 two-point conversions last year. It just didn't seem right to start the season with two of them.

"If you get a certain look, if you have an advantage, it's worth it at that time,'' explained Kiffin. ''You'd like to think at SC, with our players, that we could design some plays that, if we go twice, we'd certainly get one of them.''

That's old-school Trojans thinking. That's dangerous Trojans thinking. Amid the second of a two-year probation, this team doesn't need attitude, it needs soul, and by trying things like a two-point shortcut and a spread passing game, Kiffin is denying them a chance to find it.

These Trojans need to go for steady. They need to go for disciplined. They need to go for one.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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