Lane Kiffin has absorbed body blow after body blow for how USC's offense performed on Saturday night in a 10-7 loss to Washington State.
Criticism is certainly deserved, but in reality, there's a lot of blame to go around. While Kiffin is the head coach and eventually everything comes back to the man in charge, he isn't nearly at fault for every single detail as many seem to be levying against him.
The quarterbacks have been bad. The playcalling has been hamstrung. And therefore, USC's offense has been atrocious.
But what is really killing the Trojans' offense?
Let's take a look...
We'll start with the one Kiffin playcall that has been bemoaned the most...the dreaded bubble screen. Bubble screens are used for a couple reasons. When a team is playing its cornerbacks way off the line of scrimmage, you want to get the ball out into an open space for your playmakers. It should be a quick 4-5 yard pickup and give athletic receivers like Robert Woods and Marqise Lee the opportunity to break open a play.
Bubble screens are basically an extension of the running game designed to continually exploit soft coverage until the defense makes an adjustment, bringing the corners closer to the line, opening up deeper passing lanes.
There's only one problem with the Trojans. They don't block!
On the play below, it's 3rd-and-2 with USC nearing midfield in the first quarter. The Trojans go with a play-action bubble screen into the boundary. While you may hate the bubble screen and want Kiffin to be smacked every time he even considers calling one, it's a great play call in this situation, if executed correctly.
Washington State's cornerback is 6-7 yards off the line and his first movement is to jump backward. The Cougars do have a defensive end/outside linebacker, Destiny Vaeao (#97), coming out to jam (and potentially play the flat in a zone coverage), but USC has both Nelson Agholor and Xavier Grimble to block this one defender.
If the duo manages a simple seal block at the numbers or even at the initial point of contact for Agholor, Lee has a lane on the outside that would be more than enough for him to pick up two yards and the first down. Instead Vaeao blows through both blockers, cutting off the easy path outside and forcing Lee to turn back inside where another linebacker is waiting. Lee tries to use his athleticism to reverse the play and gets a nice block from QB Cody Kessler, but Washington State does a nice job of containing him and Vaeao eventually trips up Lee for a two-yard loss.
How about in the run game? Tre Madden ran the ball 32 times for 151 yards, averaging 4.7 yards. However, there were opportunities for more yards if it hadn't been for a number of "whiff" blocks. It's one thing to get beat on a play; offensive linemen aren't likely to be perfect for an entire game.
But it's a whole different thing when you put your head down, miss your block completely and have your running back get lit up in the hole. The only thing John Martinez (#59) can do on this play is slap his hands in frustration after a "whiff" block takes him to his knees. (That's not to mention the "whiff" block by the tight end coming across the formation to pick up the defensive end that goes right by left tackle Chad Wheeler.)
The above play was the first after George Uko's forced fumble that Devon Kennard picked up and returned nearly into the red zone. Getting buried on first down (though Madden got a yard) nearly killed this drive before it started. It took a fourth down run by Madden out of the Wildcat formation to keep it alive and eventually this drive resulted in USC's only points.
But the Trojans had another golden opportunity to pick up some points before halftime. After a bad 24-yard punt, USC took over at Washington State's 39-yard line with 1:04 remaining. Kiffin went with a conservative run call to try to get USC in field goal range on first down.
Instead, Madden is met in the backfield for a four-yard loss when Kevin Graf (#77) has his own "whiff" block. It appears Graf's job is to reach the defensive end and make sure to seal him inside. The Wazzu end takes an inside release, which should make that task easy, but Graf takes a step outside and is beaten without even touching the defender.
Madden is able to take one step before being hit in the backfield. He tries to avoid the defensive end leading him right into another defender. Even if Madden was able to break a tackle, the backside defenders are right there as well because Wheeler (#72) whiffs once again.
Two plays later, this happens:
There is obviously some type of miscommunication between QB and receiver as Agholor plants and begins to come inside while Kessler throws a hitch/stop route. But take a look at Kessler getting drilled on a quick pass out of the shotgun formation. IT'S A THREE-YARD ROUTE OUT OF THE SHOTGUN AGAINST A THREE-MAN RUSH! The quarterback should never be touched.
This time, in a play reminiscent to the play that ended Matt Barkley's USC career, it's center Marcus Martin (#66) looking back, searching for the guy he was supposed to be blocking and left guard Max Tuerk (#75) doesn't pick up the defender either, allowing him to split both linemen and leave Kessler needing a chalk outline:
Seriously, is Kessler even conscious? Watch his right leg. He might not be alive at this moment. He may have only been on the sideline in the second half after he was revived by a witch doctor during halftime.
Maybe the offensive line coaches... (Yea...USC has multiple o-line coaches in James Cregg and Mike Summers, who also is listed as the running game coordinator.) Maybe the offensive line coaches saw the mistakes and made some adjustments at halftime?
Eh...nope. Not so much.
On the first passing attempt of the second half (below), Graf again steps in the wrong direction, allowing the end to get on the edge with Max Wittek rolling out to the right. Aundrey Walker (#70) loses a hand fight and his defender also is racing down the line in pursuit of Wittek.
Luckily for USC, Xavier Cooper grabbed Wittek's facemask, negating the sack and giving the Trojans 15 yards and an automatic first down. For those wanting deeper passes, this is a perfect example of what an attempt to take a shot looks like when you don't block. This was a 10+ yard pass play designed to go to Lee or Agholor (with fullback Jahleel Pinner as a check down), but Wittek never gets an opportunity to set his feet and make a throw.
After Madden picked up another first down to get inside the red zone, the drive stalled out and Andre Heidari comes on to attempt a fairly easy 32-yard field goal. Except instead of USC taking the lead, 14th-year senior Abe Markowitz lets Kalafitoni Pole right up the middle, allowing him to swat away Heidari's kick like Dikembe Mutombo on the cereal aisle.
We all know that kickers are special creatures with special psyches. How much this block and a potential subsequent lack of faith in his blockers led to Heidari's later miss will never be known, but we can make the assumption that the thought crossed through his mind when he was called on again.
Speaking of Heidari's missed attempt, everyone was clamoring over Kiffin's decision to run the ball on third-and-long on the prior play. But do you remember what actually set up the 3rd-and-17?
On 2nd-and-7 from the 21-yard line, Kiffin again tries to go with a non-bubble screen pass play. However, Washington State brings an overload blitz and Madden, apparently feeling left out of the "whiff" block party, doesn't pick up the linebacker who sacks Wittek for a 10-yard loss.
Madden does a good job abandoning the play-action fake to get in position to take on a blitzer. But both he and Grimble, lined up at the fullback position here, go for the outside rusher. I'm not sure who is at fault here because it depends on the blocking scheme, but the miscommunication gives Cyrus Coen a free run at Wittek.
After seeing that blocking, would you really trust your team enough to not take another negative play if you called a passing play? Kiffin chose to give the ball to Madden, who picked up five yards and moved the go-ahead field goal attempt from a deep range shot (48 yards) to a more manageable 43-yarder.
There is plenty of blame to go around, but what needs to be repaired first is USC's blocking up front.
Why haven't the pair of future NFL tight ends been utilized more? Well, it's hard to throw to someone not in a pass route because he has to stay in to help block.
Why so many bubble screens? When the cornerbacks are playing off, bubble screens are a smart play call, but everyone has to do his job blocking.
Why not go deep more? When the cornerbacks are playing off, it takes time for receivers to cut into that cushion and then make a move -- time the Trojans' line has yet to consistently give either quarterback.
Why be so conservative on third-and-longs? Because you don't want fourth-and-even-longers.
Why has Kiffin been so hesitant to open up the creative playbook that made him such a hot coaching name his first time in the Land of Troy? The prolific 2005 offense featured five future NFL linemen in Sam Baker, Winston Justice, Fred Matua, Deuce Lutui and Ryan Kalil. It's a lot easier to be creative when your quarterback has time to survey the field and throw the ball.
Everything reverts back to the front five. Once the Trojans' offensive line is able to protect the quarterback on a quick throw out of the shotgun formation, Kiffin will be able to call a more diverse game.
If USC wants to turn around its season, its going to start with the big men up front. The good thing is that technique can be quickly adjusted. Improvements can come quickly on a talented offensive line and there is plenty of talent standing in front of Kessler and Madden.
For example, Georgia's offensive line was shredded by South Carolina at the beginning of 2012. The group jelled and came yards shy of playing in the National Championship game. The Bulldogs' line this season struggled against Clemson, leading many to believe South Carolina and Jadaveon Clowney would tear them up again. But instead, it was the Gamecocks' defense that was shredded for 41 points last weekend.
We'll see if there have been any improvements this weekend when Boston College comes to town. If the "whiff" blocks are gone, there is still hope for this season.