LOS ANGELES — Lane Kiffin could have bemoaned yet another ugly twist in his rather unusual coaching career when the NCAA hammered Southern California's storied football program with heavy sanctions just a few months after he returned.
Instead, Kiffin and his staff went to work on a detailed plan to keep the Trojans competitive while they ride out a half-decade of restrictions and bans.
Nearly two seasons in, the plan appears to be holding USC together.
Although USC has been hobbled and humbled by a bowl ban that ends this winter and scholarship restrictions that haven't even started, the 20th-ranked Trojans are fighting on. They don't flatten opponents with their accustomed flair or ferocity, yet they're still off to a 6-1 start heading into their showdown Saturday against No. 4 Stanford.
"I think we feel that mojo, that swagger that we need to have on both sides of the ball," said quarterback Matt Barkley, who has passed for 2,006 yards and 19 touchdowns with just four interceptions. "We've felt it on offense before this year, but as a team, that full team aspect of having that swagger is back."
After an early season run that included several unimpressive wins and one blowout loss at Arizona State, USC got its groove back last weekend in the biggest victory in Kiffin's tenure, winning 31-17 at Notre Dame in a prime-time matchup that was tremendously hyped in South Bend. Kiffin's favorite part of that comfortable victory was a bit hidden.
"What Trojan fans should be excited about, we went into South Bend and played 45 initial scholarship players in that game," Kiffin said, deliberately excluding a few walk-ons who have earned scholarships in the past two years. "And so I think everybody's concern is what's coming (with) the (scholarship) reductions, and we're already getting practice at it. So it's good to see that we can perform at a high level with those types of numbers, and we've been dealing with that for two years already."
Indeed, the Trojans realize they're about to get caught up in an ugly numbers game: USC will be able to award just 15 scholarships per season in each of the next three recruiting classes, with just 75 total scholarship players on its roster. Other schools can sign 25 players and have 85 total scholarships.
Kiffin and recruiting guru Ed Orgeron have a plan, however: Using their skill as two of the nation's top recruiters, they signed a bumper crop of talent in each of the last two offseasons, and then redshirted a good portion of it. USC can sign a handful of midyear enrollees this winter, but the Trojans realize a major run of recruiting mistakes, academic problems or transfers could leave them with distressing depth problems.
Kiffin is concerned, but not frightened — and he's particularly encouraged by this season.
"If you look at a team that's 6-1, none of those teams (with similar records) are playing with free agency having happened to them, and reductions and stuff," Kiffin said. "I just think it's good for our fans. I've read so many things over the years about how bad it's going to get and how bad it's going to be, and to come and play like that with that few players is very good to see."
The Trojans have stopped fighting the sanctions that arose from misdeeds surrounding Heisman Trophy-winning tailback Reggie Bush under the watch of former coach Pete Carroll and athletic director Mike Garrett. Under new school president Max Nikias and squeaky-clean new athletic director Pat Haden, USC decided not to sue the NCAA after its appeal was denied earlier this year, electing to ride out the punishment.
While the bowl ban was a disappointment for a team that finished 8-5 last year and already has enough wins to qualify this fall, Kiffin was more disappointed by the NCAA's decision to allow players to leave USC without any loss or delay in eligibility, saying it amounted to "free agency." The Trojans' depth was hurt by a handful of defections, but relatively few players exercised the option to leave.
Sure, the Trojans don't frighten opponents the way they did when Bush, Matt Leinart, Troy Polamalu and their teammates led them to seven straight Pac-10 titles and two national championships. They haven't beaten an opponent by more than 21 points this season, with most of their games still close in the final minutes, while Stanford hasn't won by fewer than 25 points in its last 10 games.
Yet the Trojans are still stocked with talent that came to USC and stayed despite the sanctions. Barkley says he never considered leaving, even stepping into a role as the players' unofficial spokesman during the struggles, while star receiver Robert Woods didn't waver on his lifelong dream to play at USC. Talented freshmen such as receiver Marqise Lee and starting linebackers Dion Bailey and Hayes Pullard declined overtures from the likes of Oregon, UCLA and schools across the country, sticking with Kiffin and the Trojans.
"This is always where I wanted to be," said Woods, who has 72 catches for 908 yards and eight touchdowns. "We want to get SC back to where it was. This is a great school, and we want to get that reputation back that the football team had before."