The set-up: After a strong offensive showing but weak defensive performance in Hawaii, the USC football team came into its home opener looking to put together a solid effort on both sides of the football and hand Virginia a convincing loss.
The story: It was one step forward, two steps back for the Trojans (2-0) in coach Lane Kiffin’s home debut. The offense managed just 17 points — 14 of them coming in the last four minutes of the first half — after putting up 49 the previous week in Hawaii. Also, for the second game in a row, the Trojan offense was outgained by its opponent, as USC put up 329 yards of total offense compared to 340 from Virginia.
This offensive performance was a far cry from the last time Kiffin stood on the USC sideline, with the likes of Matt Leinart, Dwayne Jarrett and Reggie Bush on the field.
“I would’ve loved it to be like the old days, even at the half, as [Virginia] was hanging around [I would’ve loved] to come out and blow it up like it would’ve been like the old days,” Kiffin said.
The offense wasn’t the only area of concern for the Trojans. USC was also very undisciplined. The Trojans committed 13 penalties for 140 yards, many of them coming at crucial points in the game.
There was the holding penalty on a fourth down, early in the second quarter — after Virginia gave the Trojans a second chance with a running into the kicker penalty — that erased a completed pass for a first down. Then, on the next USC drive, there was another holding penalty that nullified the 47-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Ronald Johnson, keeping the game scoreless.
That’s not to mention the two 15-yard personal foul penalties — the horse-collar tackle by redshirt sophomore defensive end Wes Horton and the late hit out of bounds by sophomore safety T.J. McDonald — on back-to-back plays late in the fourth quarter, right after senior kicker Joe Houston’s field goal gave USC a 17-7 lead.
“Really disappointed in the penalties once again,” Kiffin said. “We got to find a way to stop them. They were critical ones too. It’s one thing to get holding penalties when your pass is incomplete and they decline it or something but when you get penalties on a 50-yard touchdown pass and fourth-down conversion those are big-time penalties that could possibly cost us 14 points between the two of them.”
Defensive improvement: The defense showed significant improvement, giving up just 14 points and 340 yards after giving up 36 points and 588 yards against Hawai’i. There were still missed tackles throughout the game, but the unit did a good job bending and not breaking.
“At USC we have a tradition of playing great defense and any time you hear people say they have to doubt a USC defense, I can’t lie and say it hasn’t hurt our pride,” McDonald said. “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.”
Welcome Dillon Baxter: Freshman tailback sensation Dillon Baxter got his first carry as a Trojan for no gain with 2:23 left in the first quarter. Baxter was used periodically throughout the game, finishing with nine carries for 49 yards, which was three times as many carries as senior tailback Allen Bradford.
“I was a little nervous, but not as nervous as I expected,” Baxter said. “It felt just like practice. Our defense has been doing alright and giving us good looks every week. Once things got going it just felt kind of like practice and I just followed everything Coach told me.”
In somewhat of a surprising move, Baxter was the feature back on the key drive for the Trojans that put them up 10 points in the fourth quarter. Baxter had three carries for 18 yards to set up Houston’s 34-yard field goal in what turned out to be the game-winning score.
“At halftime coach Kiff said he would need me a little more than the first half, so I was expecting it a little more but not all that much,” Baxter said.
Houston, we have liftoff: Houston recorded the first made field goal of his USC career with a 34-yard kick with 5:52 left in the game.
Houston barely missed a 47-yard attempt wide right earlier in the game — his first career attempt — but knew his number would be called again.
“I had this feeling that I was going to have to come back and make a kick and that’s why I have a helmet and jersey in the locker room. I was just doing my job,” Houston said. “I was just thinking about making the kick. Honestly, in that part of the game you never know what’s going to happen. Kicks in the fourth quarter are important; the team’s really counting on you there and you got to come through.”