The USC Trojans football team beat Syracuse, 42-29, on Saturday – but beware the final score: it makes the win seem much more convincing than it felt to Trojans fans who made the trip to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.
This writer was in the stands as a fan for USC’s first East Coast game since 2008, and the feeling in the stadium wasn’t always as jubilant as the game recaps trumpeting Matt Barkley‘s six touchdown passes would suggest.
Six touchdown passes matches Barkley’s own school record, but it wasn’t the most impressive day for the offense. In fact, the most impressive part might be that Barkley somehow managed to get six touchdowns while throwing for fewer than 200 yards.
Despite the threat of severe thunderstorms – the stadium was under a tornado warning during prime tailgating hours – the first quarter was an occasion to sit back and soak up the temporary sunshine, because there wasn’t much happening on the field. USC fans can’t expect a 75-yard touchdown on the opening play of every game, but most probably didn’t expect a 0-0 tie after the first quarter, either.
Not until late in the second quarter, when Barkley hit Marqise Lee with passes of 10 and 19 yards to set up a 29-yard touchdown pass to Robert Woods, could I lean over to my seatmate and say: “Now that’s what we came to see.”
The Trojans took a 14-3 lead into halftime, but any momentum they had was stalled, not by the regular break but by the weather delay that tacked 70 minutes onto the end of halftime, forcing the teams back into the locker rooms as fans were sent to wait out the storms (and another tornado warning) in the crowded concourse.
The stadium, which was wasn’t even close to being full at kickoff, was even more deserted when play finally resumed.
There wasn’t much orange left in the stands after the delay, but Syracuse put on a pretty good show for the fans who stuck it out, narrowing the Trojans’ lead to less than a touchdown by the start of the fourth.
While USC head coach Lane Kiffin was busy inexplicably calling one short pass after another, much to the frustration of the USC fans in attendance, Syracuse put together a systematic but successful 78-yard touchdown drive: two Ashton Broylds carries, one Ryan Nassib pass, two Jerome Smith carries, one Nassib pass – and repeat all the way down the field to the end zone.
It wasn’t until Woods broke off a 76-yard run off a reverse to set up a touchdown, and Silas Redd sprinted for 40 yards on USC’s next possession to set up another, that USC fans could breathe easy.
All day, the Trojans’ defensive backs repeatedly gave Syracuse’s receivers far too much of a cushion. Each of Syracuse’s top receivers – Marcus Sales and Jerrod West – had more receiving yards than Woods, who led USC with 10 catches for 93 yards.
Part of the problem for USC was that the offensive line struggled to give Barkley adequate protection and time to make his throws.
Left tackle Aundrey Walker, in his first season as a starter, didn’t always pick up the blocks he needed to, and senior center Khaled Holmes left the game in the fourth quarter with what looked like an ankle injury. The severity of the injury, and Holmes’ availability for this week’s rematch at Stanford, is unclear – as is the depth chart at backup center. Cyrus Hobbi took over for Holmes at the end of Saturday’s game because Abe Markowitz, another backup, also left with an injury.
The Trojans also played without All Pac-12 kicker Andre Heidari, who was injured in the Hawaii game and did not make the trip. Freshman walk-on Alex Wood kicked all six extra points for USC, but the Trojans went for it on fourth down a few times during the first quarter rather than attempt a field goal.
Struggles on offense gave punter Kyle Negrete the chance to showcase the leg strength that earned him a scholarship at the beginning of the year. Negrete averaged 50 yards per punt, and his 65-yarder had the row of ‘Cuse fans behind me asking about the punter with the “bomb” leg (and complaining about the Orange punts that occasionally looked higher than they were long).
It was also good to see that two games into the year, the defensive line, which was a big question mark in the offseason, looks strong. Junior college transfer Morgan Breslin had another impressive day, with a sack and a pass break-up, and true freshman Leonard Williams had his second sack of the season.
The running game was also better than a week ago. Redd put on a good show for his family and friends on the East Coast, while senior Curtis McNeal played a bigger role and finished with 11 carries for 6.3 yards.
The USC fans who traveled for the game got the win, but it didn’t do a lot to build confidence with the Pac-12 schedule looming.
USC has yet to put together a balanced offensive attack this season, and this week against Stanford would be an excellent time to start. The secondary will also need to tighten up when it faces the Cardinal. Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes isn’t as prolific a passer (yet) as Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib, but the Trojans will be in trouble if they let Nunes throw for 275 yards and three touchdowns like he did in Stanford’s 50-13 win over Duke.