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Kiffin staying coy about USC's starting QB

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Cody Kessler, Max Wittek and coach Lane Kiffin all know who's starting at quarterback for No. 25 Southern California on Saturday night.

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Kiffin just won't allow his quarterbacks to tell anybody else - not even the rest of the Trojans.

``That's Coach Kiffin's decision,'' Kessler said. ``He does what's best for us in his mind, and it works out for us.''

USC's elaborate quarterback competition has extended into the second week of the regular season with no clear winner or resolution. Kiffin has refused to publicly name a starter this week, saying both sophomores will be ready to play against Washington State at the Coliseum.

Kessler played into the second half after starting the Trojans' season-opening 30-13 win over Hawaii last Thursday, and he's widely expected to start again in their Pac-12 opener. Kiffin said his starter would be the player who took the most snaps in practice Tuesday night, and All-American receiver Marqise Lee said Kessler was that player - before catching himself and qualifying his answer, not wanting to give away his coach's secret.

Not that the rest of the Trojans really know who's starting anyway. Kiffin is keeping that info on a need-to-know basis.

``I don't address them that way, just like I don't address who starts at running back, or right corner,'' Kiffin said. ``It's their job to play their position. They're not coaching, they're playing, and they've been explained that a number of times.''

That's not stopping the quarterbacks' family, friends and fellow students from trying to find out who's ahead in the race to replace Matt Barkley. Both players say they've told close family members who's starting Saturday, but they're doggedly following Kiffin's instructions with the rest of the world.

``Thank God I only had one class today, so no questions,'' Wittek said with a grin Tuesday night.

Kessler is having much the same awkward experience.

``I've gotten tons (of questions),'' Kessler said. ``People that I haven't talked to in a while, just blowing my phone up. All these random people are, `Hey, we're going to buy tickets. Are you starting? Let me know.' I don't text people back like that.''

Kiffin said he's put plenty of thought into his unusual stratagem. He claims he's going to extreme lengths of coyness because he wants to keep pressure off his two quarterbacks, who never significantly separated themselves during last season, spring ball or training camp.

``I think it's very important to protect that position,'' Kiffin said. ``Because as soon as you start tearing apart that position ... it gets so scrutinized. You need to stay really positive with them, because your whole team - it's not just what they hear, it's what they read all the time from outside sources. The head coach dictates opinion by how he talks about the position. That's just my philosophy.''

The quarterbacks both claim they're buying into Kiffin's plan, and Lee now claims it doesn't matter who starts. Back in training camp, the Biletnikoff Award-winning receiver said he would prefer to have one starter so he could build a rapport with him.

Both quarterbacks previously said they would prefer a more traditional arrangement, but they're publicly behind Kiffin's plan now.

``We hate the attention on us,'' Kessler said. ``We understand we're the starting quarterbacks, but we want it on the whole team. ... (Kiffin is) going to do what's best for us. He put me and Max in the know, but at the same time, he's trying to protect the team from having it take over the team.''

Neither quarterback took over the team during the messy, yet ultimately one-sided, win at Hawaii last week.

Kessler went 10 for 19, passing for 95 yards. He threw the Trojans' only TD pass to Nelson Agholor, putting them ahead to stay late in the first half after a slow offensive start - but Kessler also threw the Trojans' only interception and was hurt by drops, including a painful fourth-down mistake by Lee.

Wittek entered in the second half and went 5 of 10 for 77 yards with the game largely decided by USC's dominant defense.

Neither quarterback had to be exceptional against the rebuilding Warriors, particularly with the Trojans running the ball 42 times. USC is deep at tailback, and that strong running game could limit both quarterbacks' chances to separate themselves in a competition that's been raging since last season, when both were neck-and-neck to be Barkley's backup.

``We both entered USC with the goal of being the next starting quarterback at USC,'' Wittek said. ``We both still hold that goal, and we're fighting every day. We just take the situation for what it is and make the best of it.''

Copyright 2017 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
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