Hawaii gave No. 24 Southern California a brief enough scare Thursday night to send fans flocking to Twitter to criticize USC coach Lane Kiffin.
But the Rainbow Warriors' offense couldn't take advantage, losing 30-13 and costing the school a chance at an unlikely upset to start the year.
"I told the players before and I told them after, all you can ask out of a football team is that you play hard and they did that. I am really proud of their efforts," Hawaii coach Norm Chow said.
Hawaii's defense kept the Rainbow Warriors in contention in the first half until USC scored two touchdowns in the span of 89 seconds in the second quarter. Hawaii sacked Cody Kessler in the end zone for a safety to put its first points on the board, then got a field goal on the next drive to take a 5-3 lead.
Hawaii's lead lasted more than seven minutes — enough time for Kiffin to become a trending topic on Twitter as fans criticized his play-calling and his team's performance.
Graham finished 16 of 41 for 208 yards and a 60-yard touchdown to Keith Kirkwood with 30 seconds left in the game. He also had a big block in the first quarter, lowering his shoulder to send USC cornerback Kevon Seymour flying through the air as Bubba Poueu-Luna scrambled for 19 yards on a broken rushing play.
"There's no question that we played well defensively," Chow said. "We really put our focus on winning the line of scrimmage and I think we did a good job with that."
USC still doesn't have a clear starting quarterback and was unimpressive in the win.
But Kiffin says it's most important that the Trojans started their season with a victory, giving him more time to evaluate Cody Kessler and Max Wittek as he decides which passer gives his team the best chance to win.
"I was hoping that a long time ago it would be settled, but that's not my job to just do what makes me feel good," Kiffin said. "I've got to make sure that I'm doing what's in the best interest of the team and I think that showed today. There was not an obvious No. 1 out there today."
Justin Davis ran for 74 yards and a touchdown and USC's defense picked up for a shaky offense, masking Keller and Wittek's mixed performances. Kessler salvaged a bad start with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Nelson Agholor then gave way to Wittek early in the third quarter as the teammates took turns auditioning for the Trojans' starting job.
Wittek played more of a manager's role, handing off to Davis more often than throwing. He completed 5 of 10 passes for 77 yards. But neither Kessler nor Wittek did enough to make a starting choice clear.
"Neither of them separated themselves and we didn't help them very much," said Kiffin, citing drops, penalties and a fumble. "We didn't help them and obviously that falls on me."
Kiffin said he doesn't know yet what his future plans are for the position, or whether his team will play both quarterbacks again.
"We'll go back and see — we've got nine days to figure it out," Kiffin said.
USC intercepted four of Hawaii quarterback Taylor Graham's passes and sacked him seven times, directly setting up each USC score.
Tre Madden had 18 carries for 109 yards while starting for injured Silas Redd, who didn't make the trip from Los Angeles.
Star wide receiver Marqise Lee had eight catches for 104 yards, mostly in the second half, for the Trojans, who failed to score in the third quarter after entering the game a 23-point favorite.
Kessler played the entire first half and the first drive of the second, finishing 10 of 19 for 95 yards. Despite several overthrows, batted passes and an interception, Kessler's touchdown gave USC the lead for good and he spent slightly more time on the field than Wittek after Kiffin said the players would split work.
But Kessler failed to get Lee the ball until 6 minutes into the second quarter.
Lee — who finished fourth in voting for the Heisman Trophy last year — was visibly frustrated after several plays. He dropped a fourth-down pass that would have given USC a first-and-goal on its first drive. In the second quarter, he picked up a bouncing punt and began to run toward the left sideline to get around defenders, but fumbled and turned the ball over to Hawaii on USC's 33 yard line. Late in the fourth quarter, he dropped a downfield pass from Wittek that was slightly underthrown, but still catchable.
After his fumble, Lee scowled on the Trojans' sideline with his yellow mouthpiece hanging from his open mouth. Kiffin said Lee's drops were unusual and didn't help the quarterbacks.
"He's probably three drops from having a pretty big day," Kiffin said.
Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/oskargarcia