The set-up: Following two narrow escapes, USC played host to undefeated Syracuse. On the one hand, the Orange, who reportedly left the Big East to join the Atlantic Coast Conference earlier in the day, hoped to spoil a perfect three-game home stand with their impressive passing attack. On the other hand, the Trojans aimed to clean up mistakes from last week and gain momentum before Pac-12 play begins in earnest next week.
The story: On the opening drive, Syracuse used a heavy dosage of passing to march in to the USC red zone. The Orange appeared to move the ball confidently and establish a rhythm, but the Trojan defense stood tall and forced a field goal.
After the first drive, USC took charge by scoring 17 unanswered points to take a 17-3 lead in to the half. Junior quarterback Matt Barkley took some shots down the field, and they paid off immensely. A 20-yard pass to senior tailback Marc Tyler led to a five-yard touchdown pass to senior fullback Rhett Ellison on the first drive, and Barkley found sophomore wide out Robert Woods for a 31-yard score on the second drive.
Early in the second half, Barkley found a wide-open freshman tight end Randall Telfer over the middle for a 44-yard score. The touchdown broke the game open and gave the Trojans a comfortable lead.
As the offense found the end zone, the USC defense held steady. Syracuse failed to run the ball well, accumulating only 73 yards on 21 carries. Quarterback Ryan Nassib completed 25 of his 37 passes, but they never really materialized in to points. Despite a consistent pass rush, USC’s pass defense held its own thanks to good coverage in the secondary by sophomore Nickell Robey and junior safety T.J. McDonald.
Overall, USC soundly beat Syracuse with the final score of 38-17. The Trojans turned in an impressive performance on both sides of the ball and played their most completed contest to date.
“It is really nice to get a win like the old days,” Lane Kiffin said. “We are really pleased to get to 3-0 this week. Our guys fought hard all night for us and I’m really proud of that. We showed a great deal of improvement in all areas of the game.”
Most importantly for USC, they found a way to score in the second half and put the game away, something that was lacking the previous two weeks.
Aerial assault: For the third time in his career, Matt Barkley tied the school record for passing touchdowns with five. The most impressive aspect of the feat: Each touchdown pass went to a difference receiver. On the year, the junior quarterback has completed 80 of his 116 attempts (68.9 percent) for 892 yards, 9 touchdowns, and only one interception. Sophomore sensation Robert Woods led the team with 8 catches and 82 yards. Freshman Marqise Lee was not far behind, reeling in 2 catches for 63 yards.
Running loose: Late in the game, Lane Kiffin called on his group of running backs to carry the ball and run out the clock. With starter Marc Tyler (15 carries for 41 yards) struggling, Kiffin turned to Dillon Baxter and Curtis McNeal. While Baxter looked solid, McNeal shined. He managed 79 yards on 5 carries, including an impressive 43-yard run featuring jukes and broken tackles.
Up next: USC heads to Tempe, Ariz., for a pivotal Pac-12 South game against Arizona State. The Sun Devils are considered one of the favorites to win the division, and the winner will have a huge edge by owning the head-to-head tiebreaker. Arizona State is coming off of a disappointing loss to Illinois.