USC running back Tre Madden beats Boston College's Sean Sylvia to… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
The booing stopped. The Coliseum was barely half full, but at least those sunny souls willing to venture into the darkness that has enveloped USC football did not lose their temper.
The chants to fire the head coach stopped. Lane Kiffin gave a giant noogie to the fans by ordering a deep pass on the game's first snap — a play that was rarely repeated the rest of the afternoon — and fans fired back with only sarcastic cheers.
A temporary truce was forged. That is the best that can be said for the Trojans' 35-7 victory over Boston College on Saturday. It may not last, but it is enough for now.
After enduring what Kiffin dubbed "hell week," the Trojans used an early afternoon picnic atmosphere to make peace with their fans, make room for a real starting quarterback, and make life a tad easier for the embattled duo of Kiffin and mentor Pat Haden.
"Stick with us, we're going to improve, just stick with us," running back Tre Madden said with a relieved smile as teammates bounced off the field around him. "It feels better than last week. It was really dark last week."
It was a nice step, but it was only a first step, and there might have been more enduring goodwill if the game's first offensive step could not have been construed as a taunt. On Cody Kessler's first play as USC's officially designated starting quarterback, he threw deep to Marqise Lee, barely missing his outstretched fingers. It appeared to be an immediate answer to those fans who criticized the conservative attack that cost the Trojans in last week's humiliating loss to Washington State.
But listening to Kiffin, the joke was on those fans, and it came from the highest office on campus.
"That was Max Nikias' play," Kiffin said, referring to the USC president. "He told me, just throw it deep and they'll cheer, even if it's incomplete . . . so I ran that play for President Nikias."
Trojans fans are, of course, smarter than that. They don't want bombs on every play, they just want sophisticated and intelligent play-calling that gives their team a chance to maximize its incredible talent. Goodness, after watching Kiffin waffle between two guys for six months, they just wanted one quarterback.
The coach finally gave them one. He announced Kessler as the starter at the beginning of the week and then watched him control the huddle Saturday in a manner that probably would have saved the Washington State game a week earlier.
"He took charge, it was his spot," running back Justin Davis said. "He stepped up as a leader."
The USC offense thrived under that singular leadership, scoring five touchdowns — three more than in the previous two games combined. With a confidence he had not shown before, Kessler threw, ran, hustled and survived in completing 15 of 17 passes for 237 yards and two touchdowns.
Afterward, he was even more of a stand-up guy in the sweltering Coliseum press room. When a student intern offered to give Kessler her seat while he was waiting to address the media, he played the gentleman by refusing to take it. Even when she sat on the floor, he politely refused the chair. It should be easy for Trojans fans to get behind a kid like this.
"Now is only the beginning," Kessler said. "I hope [fans] stay with us. I'm excited to see where we can go."
He was helped by an awakening from Lee, who finally showed a glimpse of last season's greatness with a catch-and-run for an 80-yard touchdown. Madden rushed for more than 100 yards for the third consecutive game, the best start to a season by a USC running back since Marcus Allen in 1981. Then there was the Trojans' defense, which held an opponent to fewer than 250 total yards for a third consecutive week.
"It was hell week, but I kept telling them, 'Don't stop, keep going,'" Kiffin said. "They stayed together. They didn't let people tear them apart."
However, the field was still littered with some of the disconnect — team meeting or no team meeting? — that has plagued this team since the middle of last season. The Trojans were hit with 100 yards' worth of penalties, including a couple of reckless personal fouls. They also didn't seem as connected afterward, when several players ran toward the locker room instead of making the traditional run to celebrate with the band.
"Where are you going?" senior cornerback Torin Harris shouted to forgetful teammates.
Where are the Trojans going, indeed? For now, they are going into a tricky game here next Saturday against Utah State, an 11-win team last season. Down the road, if Kessler continues to improve and the team can find a way to rally around their coach, who knows?
Earlier in the week, Haden, the athletic director who has always stood firmly behind Kiffin, addressed his coach's seemingly tenuous situation while speaking to a popular communications class taught by Jeff Fellenzer. During the class, Haden compared Kiffin to Don Mattingly, the Dodgers manager who came within days of being fired this year and will soon be leading his team into the playoffs.
In the sophisticated and often-confusing lingo of college athletic administrators, that important assessment can be interpreted only one way.
Haden will soon begin the recruiting of Yasiel Puig.