As Arizona State piled up a remarkable six second half touchdowns, two realizations quickly came to mind last night: The Sun Devils offense looks mighty tough. And it was going to be a really difficult week for Lane Kiffin.
First let’s get to the juicy stuff. Kiffin was fired late last night after the team’s charter returned to Los Angeles from Tempe. The Los Angeles Daily News’ Scott Wolf reported that Kiffin was pulled off the team bus, where Pat Haden delivered the news as the team returned to campus without him. (Haden’s move feels right out of a movie, and certainly puts Jack Swarbrick’s sideline cancelation letter delivery to shame.)
In the short term, it’s hard to think USC’s team will be anything more than a mess. Haden will address the media today and is expected to name defensive coordinator Ed Orgeron interim head coach. Probably more damaging to the team’s short-term future is the status of Biletnikoff winner and All-American wide receiver Marqise Lee, who suffered a knee injury in the fourth quarter while returning a punt down four touchdowns. Some are reporting that the injury isn’t as severe as some may have expected, but with three weeks until the Trojans come to South Bend, they may be without their best offensive weapon.
Where does Haden turn as he looks for a new head coach? CBS Sports’ Bruce Feldman looked at some names with connections to the program (Washington’s Steve Sarkisian, Denver Broncos DC Jack Del Rio), and some not (Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin, Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald, 49ers OC Greg Roman). Kiffin’s dismissal was likely done now to prevent an uprising among an already fickle fanbase as well as to get a leg up on other top programs that might have a job opening coming.
Make no mistake, the job is still one of the jewels of college football. A new $70 million football building, recruiting sanctions that are nearing an end, and a fertile recruiting base and program steeped in history. The long-term decision was an easy one for Pat Haden and might make things tougher for the Irish in their most important rivalry. But in the short-term, the Irish may have caught the kind of break they desperately needed.
On to the team that put the final nail in Kiffin’s coffin. Todd Graham‘s Arizona State Sun Devils rallied after getting trounced by Stanford last week, piling up over 600 yards against a Trojan defense that until last night had looked very good. If there was any worry that the mood in the Gug would be subdued after the self-inflicted loss to Oklahoma, one only needs to throw in the tape of ASU’s offense scoring a ridiculous six touchdowns in the second half to knock the pout out of the Irish.
Graham seems to have the Irish’s number. He beat Notre Dame while at Tulsa then nearly did it again at Pitt, where he hung tough in a 15-12 loss. He jumped at the job to move west, and he’s putting together the type of elite offense many thought he would. Quarterback Taylor Kelly might be the best one the Irish face this year, gouging the Trojans for 351 yards by air and averaging almost 20 yards per carry. Skill players offer personnel challenges that have started to look a little bit more obvious as the season wears on.
In a Shamrock Series game known mostly for a neutral site and an alternate uniform, Notre Dame’s season will be at a distinct crossroad. Get through Graham’s Sun Devils, and the Irish enter bye week at 4-2, with a USC team that could still be reeling. But a loss on Saturday will push Notre Dame back to .500, a place may hoped they wouldn’t ever see again.
The story lines continue to multiple as this crazy college football season rolls into October.