Following the most tumultuous offseason in the Southern California program’s history, this may be the least excited its crowd has been for a home opener in quite some time.
With Pete Carroll gone and knowing their team can’t make a bowl game, the Coliseum fans might not be as eager as usual to welcome back the 16th-ranked Trojans even with Lane Kiffin making his home debut Saturday night against Virginia.
Sanctions handed down by the NCAA during the offseason due to improper benefits given to Reggie Bush included USC receiving a two-year bowl ban, four years’ probation and the loss of many scholarships. The backlash continued as recently as this week, with a report that Bush will be stripped of the 2005 Heisman Trophy.
In the wake of the scandal, Carroll resigned as coach to take over the Seattle Seahawks and Kiffin replaced him, making a controversial departure from Tennessee after only one year. Besides walking into a mess that will limit his recruiting ability, Kiffin also was sued by the Tennessee Titans for “maliciously” luring away assistant running backs coach Kennedy Pola.
So it’s somewhat unclear what the Coliseum reaction will be to Kiffin, particularly after an unimpressive 49-36 season-opening win at Hawaii last Thursday. The Trojans gave up 588 yards and committed 11 penalties for 100 yards.
“I’m really disappointed with everything in general, but more important than anything was the (lack of) discipline,” said Kiffin, a USC assistant for six years under Carroll.
“As you can see, we’ve got some depth concerns and issues. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Kiffin, though, was pleased with how his offense performed, particularly quarterback Matt Barkley. The sophomore threw for five touchdowns, completing 18 of 23 passes for 257 yards.
“It’s huge for our whole team, for coach Kiffin, for the program, for all of the guys, it’s big time,” Barkley said. “It’s awesome, but it’s just a start.”
Barkley, who did not have an interception for the first time in nine games, had never thrown for more than two TDs despite starting every game as a freshman. He may have found a new favorite target in Ronald Johnson, who tied a school record with three touchdown catches - his total from all of last year - and scored on a punt return.
Just as encouraging offensively for USC was the performance by Marc Tyler, who rushed for 154 yards and a TD on 17 carries. Tyler, limited to one game last year due to a toe injury, is taking over for NFL draft pick Joe McKnight as the starting running back after beating out top returning rusher Allen Bradford.
While Kiffin makes his debut at the Coliseum, Virginia is playing in California for the first time and also has a new coach. Former assistant Mike London was promoted after Al Groh was fired following the Cavaliers’ 3-9 season.
London’s tenure got off to a rousing start last Saturday, as Virginia won a season opener for the first time since 2005 by beating Richmond 34-13.
Like USC, the Cavaliers are counting on a tailback in his first season as a starter and a quarterback in his second.
Senior Keith Payne displayed a bruising rushing style with 114 yards and four touchdowns on 16 carries.
“We have a lot of guys on this team right now that are ready to break out,” said quarterback Marc Verica, the starter for much of 2008 who rode the bench most of last year while Groh employed a spread offense.
Verica returned as the starter last Saturday to complete 24 of 35 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown.
He did not play in 2008 in Virginia’s only meeting with USC, a 52-7 home loss.
The Trojans have won their last 12 home openers - one vacated due to the NCAA sanctions - and 31 straight home games at night, three of which were vacated.