USC struggles far from home

Originally Published: September 8, 2012
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The best thing you can say about USC's 42-29 win against Syracuse is that it's over. Prison wardens everywhere can use the game film to quell inmate uprisings: Pipe down or we'll make you watch three of the four quarters.

USC began Saturday ranked No. 2 in the country, but it often played like it was in a No. 12 mood. The Trojans were missing their starting place-kicker and, for huge chunks of the game, their focus. They were here in body, but their minds seemed like they were in Manhattan Beach.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Rich Barnes/US PresswireMatt Barkley, who turned 22 on Saturday, threw for six touchdowns.

"We've got so much work to do,'' said USC coach Lane Kiffin. "You saw that today.''

So did the poll voters.

USC didn't play poorly, just indifferently. It played like a team that knew it was going to win -- and it showed.

"I don't really know what it was,'' said USC quarterback Matt Barkley, who turned 22 Saturday. "We felt ready to go. Took us a while to get going.''

The Trojans flew across the country -- their only game east of the Mississippi this season -- to showcase Heisman Trophy candidate Barkley and to remind the other side of the nation they were serious about winning a national title.

Big Apple, big opportunity.

Maybe it was the half-empty MetLife Stadium, the sideways rain that forced an hour delay between halves, the three-time zone trip, Syracuse or all of the above, but USC struggled. Even Kiffin acknowledged the game environment was "kind of weird.''

Barkley threw for six touchdowns, but as ridiculous as it sounds, he didn't knock anybody's socks off (187 passing yards, one interception). Then again, neither did USC.

Afterward, Barkley's teammates serenaded him with a postgame "Happy Birthday'' and threw banana peels at him. Kids.

The Trojans wanted to win this one for Barkley. Wide receiver Marqise Lee even said so. And Kiffin gave him a birthday present of those six touchdown calls.

"I thought he played really well,'' said Kiffin.

Barkley was efficient, but not necessarily memorable. I know -- he threw SIX TOUCHDOWNS! -- but he's had better games.

[+] EnlargeLane Kiffin
Rich Barnes/US PresswireUSC coach Lane Kiffin said the Trojans still have a lot of work to do.

Barkley completed 23 of 30 passes and got a major assist from a running game that eventually grinded down the Orange to a nice pulp. Former Penn State star Silas Redd rushed for 107 of the Trojans' 258 yards on the ground.

But there was no OMG factor from Barkley or the Trojans. He helped lead the Trojans to a win, but his numbers won't lead the local sportscasts in the Tri-State Area.

That's sort of OK. Just because Barkley didn't throw for 500 yards in early September doesn't mean he won't be back in New York for the December Heisman presentation. But he might want to crank it up soon.

Next Saturday at Stanford would be a good place to start. Not just for Barkley, but the Trojans in general.

Remember, a four-team playoff doesn't kick in until 2014. That means the unpredictability and beauty pageant-silliness of the BCS is still in play.

"That's so far [from] what we're thinking about,'' said Kiffin.

USC is good enough to play for a national title, but so are a handful of other teams. I know the season is in its infancy, but the Trojans can't afford many semi-sleepwalks like the one against Syracuse.

Earlier in the week, Kiffin openly questioned his team's attention span. They had beaten Hawaii by 39 a week ago and were facing a Syracuse team that had given up 42 points -- and lost -- to Northwestern in its opener.

Maybe the Trojans thought they'd show up at MetLife and the Orange, overwhelmed by the sight of the great Barkley (and maybe the USC Song Girls), would play dead. It didn't happen that way.

USC is 2-0, but the questions about this team outnumber the answers. The Trojans did what they had to do -- win a ballgame -- but have only themselves to blame if they slide down the rankings for a second consecutive week.

The Trojans led 14-3 at halftime. A band of rain storms delayed the start of the third quarter, so USC's players sat in the locker room, shoulder pads off, headphones on, and chilled. When they returned, they resembled the team that started the season ranked No. 1 in the country.

USC linebacker Dion Bailey ended Syracuse's opening drive of the second half with his second interception of the day. Eight plays later, Barkley found the amazing Robert Woods in the end zone for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead.

USC is back!

No, it wasn't!

Syracuse took the kickoff, drove 78 yards and scored a touchdown of its own. Then it intercepted Barkley's next pass -- and scored six plays after that.

See what I mean?

Syracuse isn't Savannah State. And senior quarterback Ryan Nassib is no schlub. He was 44-for-65 for 470 yards against Northwestern and 30-for-46 for 322 yards and two touchdowns against USC.

"It's their Super Bowl,'' said Kiffin of Syracuse's mindset.

But Syracuse isn't USC. It stayed in the Trojans' rearview mirror much longer than it should have.

USC separated itself in the fourth quarter with Barkley's touchdown passes to tight end Xavier Grimble and a pair to Lee, but there were too many penalties (12) and more than a few missed tackles and coverage errors.

For what it's worth, the Trojans were missing their starting place-kicker, Andre Heidari, who didn't make the trip because of an undisclosed injury.

"We're going to be a really good team,'' said Kiffin.

He's probably right. In fact, the words handwritten on each of Bailey's eye-black patches put it perfectly.

Faith. Faith.

Words to live by. Especially after Saturday.

Gene Wojciechowski | email

Columnist / College Football reporter

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