USC avoids scare at home against Minnesota

No. 25 USC has yet to officially launch a Heisman Trophy campaign for Robert Woods, but it might want to start now.

During the Trojans’ season opener against Minnesota, the sophomore wide receiver broke the school’s single-game mark for receptions with 17, leading the Trojans to a 19-17 win Saturday over the unranked Golden Gophers.

“Robert is a special player,” said junior quarterback Matt Barkley, who also set the school’s single-game record for completions with 34. “He just runs great routes. He’s a smart player, who has mastered the playbook, knows defenses and knows how to get open.”

Christopher Pham | Daily Trojan

Woods, who served as the team’s primary offensive threat, finished with three touchdown receptions for just the second time in his career, counting for 18 of USC’s 19 points.

Yet all of the Trojans’ scoring came in the first half, as it was outscored 14-0 in the final two quarters by Minnesota, which finished 77th nationally in total offense last season.

“Obviously [we’re] disappointed in the second half with the offense,” USC coach Lane Kiffin said. “Not scoring a point is hard to imagine.”

The Trojans’ near second-half collapse evoked shades of some of last season’s losses in the final minutes, most notably to Washington and Stanford in consecutive weeks in early October, where they lost on last-second field goals.

Against Washington, USC led by two points with 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter before relinquishing its lead on the final play — a 32-yard field goal from Erik Polk. A week later at Stanford, it took a late one-point lead on an Allen Bradford touchdown, before watching Nate Whitaker nail a 30-yard field goal moments later to give the Cardinal the win.

“I had flashbacks to last year, but I was confident in our defense,” Barkley said. “This team is a new team; it’s a new defense and they’ve come a long way.”

This time, sophomore cornerback Torin Harris, who started over junior cornerback Tony Burnett, made sure USC avoided a similar fate.

With the Golden Gophers taking over at their own nine-yard line and trailing by two points, a pass from freshman quarterback Max Shortell, who replaced an injured MarQueis Gray midway through the fourth quarter, was interceptioned by Harris with 1:11 remaining in the game, sealing the victory.

“I was just reading the receiver,” said Harris, whose interception marked the first of his career. “We were in man, bump coverage. I saw the ball was there and I had to make a play.”

The 302 total yards allowed by the USC defense marked the third-lowest total by an opponent in the last 22 games, a noticeable improvement for a unit that posted its worst statistical season since 1955 in 2010.

“You saw how we played today,” Harris said. “I think we did really well as a unit.”

Though it might have been less than ideal, Trojans were able to at least get on the scoreboard early — on their first drive of the game, as Barkley orchestrated a 13-play, 66-yard drive that resulted in a 7-yard touchdown pass to Woods.

Later in the half, Barkley found Woods again — this time on a 43-yard touchdown pass to give USC its second score of the game.

But Barkley and company led just 12-0 after two straight two-point conversion attempts went awry.

“It’s a special teams scenario,” Kiffin said when asked about the rational for opting out of the more conventional extra point attempt. “We were 50 percent last year. If you get a certain look where you have an advantage, it’s worth a look.”

USC would later score on another Barkley touchdown pass to Woods with just under one minute remaining in the first half. This time, however, Kiffin chose to kick the extra point.

Featuring an inexperienced offensive line, as it started three first-time starters in left guard Jeremy Galten, right guard John Martinez and right guard Kevin Graf, USC opted to line up in four-wide-receiver sets in the hopes of easing some of the pressure off the young unit.

“I would like it to change,” Kiffin said. “It’s not really fun to play the game that way so spread out and balls going all over the place. It just gets you out of rhythm. It’s not the normal ‘SC rhythm of running the ball and play-action.”

Of USC’s 73 offensive plays, 45 were passes by way of Barkley — more than 60 percent. Logging meaningful carries for the first time in their careers, freshman D.J. Morgan, who started at tailback, and junior Curtis McNeal, finished with 103 yards on 24 carries.

“It was not a satisfying win,” Barkley said. “Of course we’ll celebrate all our victories, but this is not the way you want to get it. You want to be able to come out with a complete game in all areas.”

USC will host Utah at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum next week in its Pac-12 opener.

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