Second-ranked USC was out of its element after traveling across the country to play Syracuse Saturday afternoon in an eerie atmosphere in front of 39,507 fans at half-empty MetLife Stadium before ominous storm clouds rolled in to delay the game for 1 hour, 28 minutes at halftime.
But the Trojans (2-0) handled all the elements and a surprising second-half challenge from the Orange to post a 42-29 victory. Quarterback Matt Barkley, who is regarded by many as the Heisman Trophy favorite, threw six touchdown passes despite a modest 187 yards through the air, and wide receiver Robert Woods also turned in a Heismanesque performance in the role of game-breaker.
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"This was a good team we played today," Southern Cal coach Lane Kiffin said of Syracuse (0-2), which outgained USC by 10 yards (455-445) and got another big day from quarterback Ryan Nassib, who completed 30 of 46 passes for 322 yards and two TDs but also had two passes picked off by Trojans linebacker Dion Bailey. "This was not an easy game to play on the East Coast in an NFL stadium. There was not as much attendance as people thought, so there wasn't a whole lot of energy."
USC went to halftime with a 14-3 lead thanks to Barkley scoring passes of 13 yards to Marqise Lee (11 catches, 66 yards, three TDs) and 29 to Woods (10, catches, 93 yards, two TDs). Kiffin said stadium officials told him before the game to expect a weather delay, so he had his players get out of their pads and put on dry shirts.
"The players had a lot of energy coming out to start the third quarter," Kiffin said.
Bailey's second interception set the Trojans up at the Orange 43. They moved to the 22-yard line, where they faced third-and-12, but Woods caught a short pass to the left, reversed field and went to the far right, covering close to 40 yards for a 13-yard gain and a diving first down. Woods' 4-yard scoring catch made it 21-3.
Syracuse came back to cut the deficit to 21-16 on a 3-yard pass from Nassib to Marcus Sales and a 8-yard run by Prince-Tyson Gulley with 3:42 left in the third quarter. It seemed the Orange had a shot at the upset.
Barkley admitted he was relying on short passes instead of trying to go deep against a cover-three defense. But that's where Woods' individual brilliance took over.
First, Woods carried a punt back 31 yards to the Syracuse 22. After two incompletions, Barkley hit tight end Xavier Grimble at the 10, and he broke three tackles to score and push the lead to 28-16.
When USC got the ball back at its own 20, Woods lined up on the right, ran an end-around to the left, got a block from Lee, made two tacklers miss and went 76 yards. That led to a 4-yard TD toss to Lee and a 35-16 lead.
"We all have the mind-set that this is our time to make a difference . . . when the game is close," Woods said. "Coach Kiffin was calling a reverse in practice all week. I hit the edge and had a great block from Marqise and made two cuts."
That was all the cushion the Trojans needed to go on to the victory. Barkley said a running game that totaled 258 yards, including 107 by Penn State transfer Silas Redd on 15 carries, complemented the passing game in the second half because it forced Syracuse to give single coverage to Woods and Lee at times.
"If I know that it's one-on-one with them," Barkley said, "I bet on our guys at the end of the day."