We had a feeling that USC wasn't headed the right direction in 2012, when a preseason top-five team stumbled all the way to a 7-6 record. We watched those struggles continue in USC's opening game of 2013, when Hawaii briefly led the men of Troy 5-2 in the first quarter before the Trojans finally found their footing in an otherwise ugly contest. But it seemed most believed that, in the end, it would turn around. This is USC, after all.
But Saturday in Los Angeles might end up being the turning point in the ongoing drama of "As The Trojans Turn." No. 25 USC's lukewarm 10-7 loss to Washington State at the Coliseum was perhaps the best indicator thus far that this once-proud program is stuck in neutral.
The Trojans let a mediocre Cougars squad, at best, venture to L.A. and stifle their roster into an upset. Coach Lane Kiffin, the leader of a program once headlined by prolific passers such as Carson Palmer and Mark Sanchez and Matt Leinart and Matt Barkley, spearheaded an offensive attack that mustered only 51 passing yards between two new quarterbacks, Max Wittek and Cody Kessler. And this passing deficiency took place with last season's Biletnikoff Award winner, receiver Marqise Lee, on the edge; Lee would catch eight balls for only 29 yards against the Cougars.
Even the roster's bright spot on the night -- running back Dre Madden, who rushed for 147 yards on 31 carries -- felt like a fairly empty effort. Madden failed to reach the end zone against Washington State, as a four-yard touchdown run by Kessler in the second quarter marked the Trojans' only trip to the end zone.
Kiffin entered the season with a large target on his back. The pressure was on at Southern Cal, where Kiffin walked into an enviable situation on his first year on the job in 2010. Even with NCAA sanctions looming from former coach Pete Carroll's regime, the prestige put forth by the USC program served as its own recruiting tool, and its geographical location as the primary program in California aided those efforts in luring the West Coast's top talent.
But now we're witnessing a situation where, three years later, the Trojans' once daunting home-field advantage is being infiltrated by the likes of Washington State. The Cougars, you might recall, finished 3-9 last season in Mike Leach's first year on the job with one of the country's worst offenses. At USC, the position of quarterback doesn't seem to be the defining role it once was, especially as Kiffin continues to keep his quarterback preferences under wraps from the public and, sometimes, even his own team. Last season, the scapegoat for the Trojans' problems was their defense, and Kiffin's own father, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, left the program in the offseason. But now the offense seems just as much in flux, despite talents like Lee on the roster.
The question is how Kiffin and the Trojans can grow from here, because the Pac-12 is developing all around them. Jim Mora Jr. has UCLA riding on high expectations just across town from USC. Arizona State is considered by many to be a sleeper in the conference with its talent on defense. Then, of course, there's the established powers like Oregon and Stanford, who aren't going anywhere anytime soon, and USC still must face the Bruins, Cardinal and Sun Devils this season. On Saturday USA Today's Dan Wolken brought up a good point on Twitter regarding USC. "The word 'unacceptable' is thrown around a lot but rarely is it meant literally," Wolken posted. "With Texas and USC, it is. This cannot be accepted." Kiffin holds the reins to a program that is expected to compete for national championships, and unlike many places, that expectation is reasonable. But on Saturday, the Trojans were exposed as anything but contenders, and there's very little indication that the program is on an upward climb.