USC Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin was adamant that he didn’t know who the Trojans’ new starting quarterback would be and wouldn’t name Matt Barkley‘s permanent replacement until after the first game. But someone had to take the first snap, and that someone was sophomore Cody Kessler.
While Kessler was technically the Trojans’ new starter, Kiffin insisted both quarterbacks would play and that the quarterback competition wasn’t yet over.
According to reports from spring practices and fall camps, Kessler outplayed fellow sophomore Max Wittek, who started the last two games of 2012 as Barkley’s backup. To many onlookers, the choice was clear, but Kiffin, who’d had three seasons to evaluate the two, still wasn’t sure.
Shortly before kickoff, Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Plaschke tweeted that Kiffin feels he “owes” Wittek a shot to prove himself:
Kessler, people’s choice, will start game at QB for USC…but not so fast…Kiffin feels he owes Wittek a shot,and will likely give him one
— Bill Plaschke (@BillPlaschke) August 30, 2013
Wittek may have cemented his spot as this year’s starter months ago had he not crashed and burned during the Sun Bowl debacle, when he went 14-of-37 for 107 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. That was his shot, and he didn’t do enough during the offseason to prove he could be better, better than that performance and better than the Trojans’ other option.
Kiffin chose to start Kessler in the opener, but by not officially naming him the new starter, he appeared to lack confidence that Kessler is his guy. Kessler’s play in the first half certainly didn’t do anything to help his case, but if Kiffin’s gut feeling all along had been to go with Wittek, he should’ve trusted his own judgment, regardless of practice stats or popular opinion.
Kessler struggled mightily during the first half, but Kiffin stuck with him, and he finished the half 10-for-17 for 95 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Until the touchdown to Agholor late in the second quarter, Kessler was a mess — staring down receivers, throwing ill-advised passes and taking a safety that put Hawaii on the board.
Would he have looked more poised if he hadn’t felt like he was on the biggest job interview of his life? He may still have had jitters in his first college start, but he may also have played with more composure and confidence if he knew it was his offense and the rest of the team — and his offensive coordinator — was behind him.
Instead of helping Kiffin make the best possible decision, dragging the quarterback competition into the season prevented the offense from rallying behind one quarterback and developing cohesion before the opening kickoff.
If Kessler and Wittek had both played well against Hawaii, it only would’ve muddled the competition further and made the final decision more difficult. Instead, the quarterbacks — and the entire team — stayed in limbo, the offense floundered against a defense that was one of the nation’s worst last year, and neither quarterback gave Trojans fans high hopes for the immediate future.
Kiffin’s wavering may have had little impact on his quarterbacks’ disappointing performances in the opener, but it probably didn’t help to keep them looking over their shoulders when their only focus should’ve been winning the game, not the starting job.
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