Considering how the Trojans performed Saturday in its Pac-12 opener against Utah, anyone expecting a repeat performance would have been surprised when Kiffin said he was actually pleased with the 23-14 win Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum despite three turnovers and several critical penalties that prevented the offense from blowing the game open.
With 11 seconds to play, offensive tackle Matt Kalil blocked Coleman Petersen's 41-yard field goal attempt that would have sent the game to overtime. Cornerback Torin Harris scooped up the ball and returned it 68 yards for a touchdown, which wasn't officially put on the scoreboard until hours later by Pac-12 officiating consultant Mike Pereira because the USC sideline poured out onto the field drawing a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Referees treated it as a live ball foul and did not award the touchdown on the field.
Still, Kiffin saw the second consecutive late escape as a turning point for a team that lost three games in the closing moments a year ago.
"I'm excited that it finished that way," he said. "At first, I would have thought it was better to close it out obviously in four-minute offense and pick up a first down there, but I think this was important for this team. The energy in that locker room, the energy on that sideline … that energy and that emotion brings a team together.
"Wins like this sometimes can be really special and start you on a run."
It never should have got to that point. In the first half, USC (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12) had drives end at the Utah 32 on downs, the Utah 21 when quarterback Matt Barkley was intercepted and the Utah 16 when running back D.J. Morgan fumbled. Tight end Xavier Grimble also lost a fumble just across midfield midway through the third quarter.
"We had so many opportunities to push the thing up to a two-touchdown lead and unfortunately we didn't do that," Kiffin said.
There was also a late quarterback sneak negated by a chop block and linebacker Hayes Pullard dropped an interception that hit him right in the chest on the final possession by Utah (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12).
"We're there, we're playing really well in all phases of the game and we just don't put people away," Kiffin lamented.
Still, there were plenty of signs that if and when the Trojans put everything together they could be a dominant force.
Barkley again showed flashes of challenging Andrew Luck of Stanford as the conference's top quarterback, completing 20 of 32 passes for 264 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods still caught eight passes for 102 yards in a quiet game. Youngsters like Grimble, who caught a nine-yard touchdown and receiver Marqise Lee showed flashes.
The return of Marc Tyler from suspension energized the rushing game, as the redshirt senior finished with 113 yards on 24 carries and added a six-yard touchdown run.
While Kiffin downplayed his role throughout the week, he knew the bruising Tyler would be crucial against a stout and deep defensive line.
"I thought it would actually be a Marc Tyler type of game," Kiffin said. "I thought by the end of it he would have more carries."
The defense stonewalled Utes running back John White in the first half, limiting him to 19 net yards on 12 carries. Then they turned up the pressure on quarterback Jordan Wynn after the break with two critical sacks, several batted balls and key pressures.
And the special teams were solid as usual, with freshman kicker Andre Heidari kicking a 47-yard field goal, another negated by a false start.
"It's definitely a confidence booster," safety T.J. McDonald said. "We know what we can do."