- Mark Saxon, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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LOS ANGELES -- The head coach called it a “debacle.” The quarterback said it didn’t leave a “satisfying feeling.”
Just think if USC hadn’t torn up a couple of marquee school records in Saturday’s 19-17 win over Minnesota at the Coliseum.
If this were a normal season at USC, Robert Woods and Matt Barkley would have elbowed into the early Heisman Trophy chatter with a couple of explosive performances in Week 1. But things still aren’t normal around here. The NCAA is still standing on USC’s neck and Heisman voters are likely determined to ignore anything coming out of L.A. in 2011. Plus, nothing about Saturday’s juxtaposition of encouraging strides and second-half fizzle suggested normalcy.
USC was determined to get Woods the ball, whether he was covered or not, whether he was two yards behind the line of scrimmage or 30 yards down field, whether the defensive back was committing misdemeanor battery or had fallen down. That plan seemed like a good idea. Woods is as complete as any player in college football -- smart, prepared, athletic and tough.
Coach Lane Kiffin knew he was going to make Woods the centerpiece. Why, otherwise, would he inform him the night before in a meeting of the school’s single-game receptions record and suggest it might be time to start a new one?
Barkley looked good to the task of making a legend, getting Woods the ball on target, releasing it quickly to avoid sacks and generally looking as comfortable in the pocket as he would on his living-room couch.
The perfect storm of Minnesota’s soft zone defense and locked-in performances from the quarterback and wide receiver re-wrote USC’s single-game records, and we’re not talking about fine-print numbers at a little out-of-the-way school.
The 17 catches broke Johnnie Morton’s 1993 USC record by two. The 34 completions for Barkley outdid Todd Marinovich’s mark from a 1989 game.
And, man, the Trojans looked awful in the second half, didn’t it? Against a team that finished 76th in total defense in 2010, they didn’t score a single point after halftime, stalling and sputtering, false-starting and dropping the ball.
Center Khaled Holmes’ snap over Barkley’s head was the longest play from scrimmage in the half -- and that one went bouncing and rolling 32 yards the wrong way.
If these early glimpses prove predictive of the next three months, USC’s offense could be a sputtering, lurching mess all year and it could still launch Barkley into the NFL draft with some ridiculous numbers. Worried about the offensive line -- with a junior-college transfer at one guard spot and a redshirt sophomore at the other -- Kiffin spread the field and nit-picked relentlessly. Quick screens, slants, anything to keep Barkley on his feet, Woods cutting through defenders and the chains moving.
The running game was an afterthought, a disturbing trend for a team that typically builds its attack around steady ground gains, then looks for play action and deep strikes.
“I would like it to change. It’s not really fun to play the game that way, so spread out and balls coming all over the place,” Kiffin said. “It’s not the normal ‘SC rhythm of running the ball and play action, but we just didn’t want this quarterback getting hit on a bunch of different play action stuff and deep passes.”
USC receivers dropped eight passes, by Kiffin’s count, and Barkley still went 34 of 45 for 304 yards and three touchdowns. A mature, poised starting quarterback and one dynamic play maker don’t suggest a conference powerhouse. If USC doesn’t find better continuity from its line and develop some other threats, its fans may not have to wait for that trip to Oregon to start fretting. Next week’s game against Pac-12 newcomer Utah could give the Trojans all they can handle. Kiffin predicted they would lose if they play this way at the Coliseum next week.
But in all this gnashing of teeth, let’s not forget how good Barkley and Woods looked working together. It’s not as if these are seventh-year pros. Few had heard of Woods, a 19-year-old sophomore, a year ago. Barkley, a junior, still hasn’t turned 21. Even if this USC season proves another forgettable one, those two could provide Trojans fans with lasting memories in 2011 -- and, really, what else can they hope for?
These two worked well together last year. Then, Woods said, things really started to sizzle during summer workouts a couple of months ago.
“We got the timing down, knowing what he’s thinking on deep balls,” Woods said. “Other than that, a year of experience on the field slowed things down a bit and that’s helped me a lot.”
Barkley is smart enough to know the kind of talent he’s working with. If he gets Woods the ball, everybody looks good. The way Randall Telfer and Xavier Grimble were dropping balls Saturday, he’d be crazy not to throw him the ball. If he’s open, that’s just a plus.
“He’s a smart, cerebral player who has mastered the playbook and knows defenses and just knows how to get open,” Barkley said. “Athleticism on top of that helps.”
Knowing who you are and what you do well helps. If it’s enough is another question.