It was slow. It was muddled. It was frustrating.
But it was a win.
The USC football team (2-0) came out on top Saturday night with a 17-14 victory over Virginia (1-1), despite failing to establish much consistency throughout the course of the game. The Trojans were outgained in yards and repeatedly hurt themselves with penalties on both sides of the ball, but mustered just enough offensive firepower to put the Cavaliers away.
“[I am] really disappointed in our performance,” said USC coach Lane Kiffin after the game. “They outcoached us. We just had better players and made some plays. I hope you can tell the disappointment in our team and coaching staff. We’re not getting it done.”
Although last week’s game in Hawaii featured a plethora of scoring and a noticeable lack of defense, Saturday’s matchup turned the tables; defense controlled the pace of play, as neither team was able to get on the scoreboard until just less than four minutes were left on the clock in the second quarter.
Sophomore quarterback Matt Barkley was able to complete 20 of 35 passing attempts for 202 yards, but a lackluster running game stalled the Trojan attack, as redshirt junior tailback Marc Tyler was only able to manage 67 yards on 18 rush attempts. Freshman tailback Dillon Baxter’s debut as a Trojan was promising, as the rookie gained 49 yards on just nine attempts, but USC’s rushing corps could not break out of a sluggish start to contribute a score.
“[Running the ball] felt really crowded, like there were bodies everywhere,” Tyler said. “Their defensive line was doing a lot better.”
After a fit of scoring at the end of the half that featured three touchdowns — two by the Trojans to senior tight end Jordan Cameron and redshirt junior wide receiver Brandon Carswell with a Virginia score sandwiched in between — the offensive lull returned in the third quarter as the sides traded possessions with little to show until senior kicker Joe Houston’s field goal late in the fourth quarter put the Trojans up 17-7. A score by the Cavaliers with four seconds left in the game cut the differential to three, but USC was able to fall on an onside kick and run out the clock to seal the victory.
Despite the victory and a perfect start to the season, the mood in the USC locker room remained dampened.
“It’s probably the most miserable 2-0 locker room I’ve ever been in,” Kiffin said. “But that’s good, because it means the players understand our expectations and what we want from them.”
Penalties remained a major area of concern for the Trojans, as they were flagged 13 times for 140 yards. A 47-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson was negated by a holding call, as was a fourth-and-two conversion early in the second half.
“Penalties killed us,” Barkley said. “A lot of crucial plays were called back because of penalties. Our game plan was fine; we were rolling, but we weren’t executing and moving the ball, especially on third down. I definitely think that hurt us. We just need to become more disciplined.”
If there was one positive USC can take from Saturday’s game, it is in the substantial defensive improvement the team made since last week. The Trojans repeatedly stopped the Virginia attack in key situations, including on two red zone trips that could have swung the game in Virginia’s favor. In one instance, with the Cavaliers looming on USC’s four-yard line, sophomore safety T.J. McDonald intercepted a Marc Verica pass in the end zone to return possession to the Trojans and keep the game knotted at 0-0.
“We came into this game with a chip on our shoulder and we stressed the whole week that we were going to finish our plays and tackle. I thought we did that pretty well but there’s still stuff to work on,” McDonald said. “It comes down to preparation. I’m happy with the win and with the way our defense played, but at the same time, you can never be satisfied.”
The Trojans will now have another week to prepare for their last non-conference game at Minnesota and to work on the problems they have identified thus far.
“We need to go back to work, get in the film room [Sunday] and back to the field on Tuesday,” Kiffin said. “We need to improve before we lose a game like this because we play so poorly.”