It came as a surprise to many — most everyone, in fact.
Just one game removed from passing for a single-game school record 468 yards against Arizona, junior quarterback Matt Barkley and the rest of the Trojans’ offense visibly struggled at California last Thursday.
Barkley finished just 19-of-35 for 195 passing yards — his lowest output through the air all year for the Trojans. He did, however, throw two touchdowns against the Golden Bears.
Despite winning the game 30-9, USC understands it has a lot of work to do before facing Notre Dame on Saturday in South Bend, Ind., in what will be the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium since a 1990 game against Michigan.
“We’re going to get ready for everything, whether it’s press [coverage] or off [coverage],” sophomore wide receiver Robert Woods said. “We [have to] be ready for whatever they throw at us.”
On the season, the Trojans average almost 300 yards per game through the air, and Barkley remains among the nation’s leaders in touchdown passes, as well as passing yards.
The rather ho-hum performance against Cal came as a surprise to everyone, including Barkley.
In the moments following the game, Barkley and Woods noted it wasn’t so much the scheme Cal employed that stifled the offense. It was USC’s own offensive miscues that threw it off in San Francisco.
“When it comes down to it, I don’t think it comes down to what they showed us,” Barkley said in the aftermath. “It’s us not making plays tonight, especially myself. Just little things were off.”
The lack of an explosive passing game has to be disconcerting — at least to some degree — for the Trojans, given on the season they average just more than 133 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 77th in the country.
Woods also noted the offense’s lack of firepower was self-inflicted and just seemed a bit “off” on the night.
“I’m not really sure [what happened],” Woods said after practice Sunday. “It was just a lot of timing, [being] slightly off. We just got to get better. They ran a Cover 2, but I was behind the secondary a lot, so it wasn’t anything that they were doing.”
The players understand the offensive game — not just the passing game — will need to be clicking on all cylinders against the Fighting Irish.
“[We need to be] consistent and get the timing down with no turnovers,” Woods said. “We had one last week. And [we need to] keep getting turnovers on defense.”
Notre Dame does present a few challenges of its own.
The Irish defense gives up just a 58 percent completion percentage to opposing quarterbacks and allows 21 points per game. The Trojans, however, might be without the services of freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee, who suffered a shoulder injury against the Golden Bears.
Lee, who has emerged as a consistent offensive weapon alongside Woods, finished with 81 yards receiving and a touchdown before leaving the game Thursday.
If the 6-foot wideout, who has four touchdown catches this season, is unable to play, senior wide receiver Brandon Carswell, who caught his first touchdown of the year against California, is expected to fill his spot. Junior wide receiver Brice Butler could also see playing time.
No matter who lines up next to him, Woods hopes to have a better game than he did last week, where he only caught five passes for 36 yards.
On the season, Woods is fifth in the country in receiving yards (783) and averages just more than 130 receiving yards per game.
The game against Notre Dame begins a tough stretch for the Trojans, as they will face Stanford, Colorado, Washington and Oregon in the coming weeks.
Woods, however, is looking forward to the challenges that lie in South Bend, hostile crowd and all.
“I’m excited,” Woods said. “First Notre Dame game in South Bend, first night game in I think 22 years. It’s going to be a big one.”