EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — A slow start for the offense. A sluggish second half on defense. And an injury to a key player.
No. 2 Southern California headed back home after its victorious trip to the Northeast with plenty of reasons for tempered enthusiasm.
“We’ve got so much work to do. You saw that today,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said after a 42-29 victory against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium, the home of the Giants and Jets.
Matt Barkley matched his own school record with six touchdown passes and receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee were trouble all day for the Orange. But the Trojans were shut out in the first quarter, and needed most of the first half to take control of the line scrimmage from an active Orange defensive front.
“I don’t really know what it was,” said Barkley, who turned 22 Saturday. “We felt ready to go. Took us a while to get going.”
Once the Trojans managed to keep Syracuse out of their backfield, they were tough to stop. They scored touchdowns on their last three possessions with Barkley on the field.
But even then there was some bad news. Senior center Khaled Holmes was carted off the field late in the fourth quarter with a right leg injury.
Kiffin said he did not know the severity of the injury after the game. Backup center Abe Markowitz left the stadium with his shoulder in a sling, the Los Angeles Daily News reported, which could leave USC with a third-string center against No. 21 Stanford on Saturday.
The other problems in the second half were on the defensive side.
Quarterback Ryan Nassib and Syracuse’s no-huddle offense cut a 21-3 deficit to 21-16 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Orange scored twice more late, not enough to really threaten the Trojans, but enough to keep them working until the final minutes. Nassib finished with 322 yards passing and Syracuse had 455 total yards.
“We made too many mistakes and could lose if we play a better team,” linebacker Dion Bailey told reporters.
So what gives, Trojans? Their performance was by no means a cause for alarm, but it was far from sharp.
Well, the weather didn’t help. The start of the second half was delayed 69 minutes by a passing storm.
“I put my feet up, put on my headphones,” Barkley said. “I knew it was going to be longer than 5 to 10 minutes.”
Kiffin said it was a strange day in many ways so he couldn’t be too upset with a less-than-perfect game from his players.
“First off, the East Coast, NFL stadium, not much attendance, lower than I think people thought, so there wasn’t a whole lot of energy,” he said. “Then the delay, so a lot of reasons why they could’ve not performed well.
“Credit our players. I thought they did really well.”
None better than Woods. He had 200 all-purpose yards, including a 31-yard punt return to set up a touchdown, 10 catches and two scores.
Woods, who spent the offseason nursing a surgically repaired right ankle, seems to be all the way back to his All-America form.
“It does feel pretty good to finally make some explosive plays,” he said. “That’s just what I want to do every week, and I’m just waiting for another opportunity to do it again.”