USC Football: 10 Things We Learned from the Trojans' Win over the Orange
In a gridiron version of Masters and Johnson's "footballus interruptus," the Trojans escaped MetLife stadium in New York with a win, albeit of the unsatisfactory variety.
After an hour-long delay at halftime to allow inclement weather to pass, the Trojans finished off Syracuse with a sloppy and very costly 42-29 victory.
Along the way, USC revealed that they still have a long way to go if they want to be included in the national championship hunt.
For a team with title aspirations, the Trojans still have a lot to work on, although some credit must go to the improving Orange.
After a coast-to-coast road win, was there anything of value to be taken from this game?
Yes, but only of marginal benefit to the cardinal and gold; the rest is worrisome.
Here's what we learned from this odd game...
What's Going on with Andre Heidari?
During the broadcast of the game, it was revealed that place-kicker Andre Heidari did not make the trip to New York due a knee injury.
With a new policy in place by Lane Kiffin to not reveal player injuries, this came as a surprise to fans of the Trojans who knew that Heidari had suffered some sort of injury against Hawaii last week but were not aware of the magnitude of the ailment.
With Heidari unavailable, Kiffin went on fourth down a couple of times with mixed results.
Fortunately, walk-on freshman Alex Wood took care of extra-point duties, but it does create angst going forward if Heidari's injury is serious.
This Game Had an Odd Rhythm to It
Beyond the long halftime delay, this game seemed to have a very discordant aspect to it.
In a game where the Trojans' potent offense was reduced to mostly short-yardage plays that sometimes turned into long gainers, USC alternately went from a high-octane offense to a pound-it-out run team with little rhyme or reason guiding it.
Meanwhile, the defense would look lights out one series and hopeless the next.
To compound the confusion, Syracuse seemed to also suffer from identity issues by looking inept at any given point and then the next moment playing like gangbusters.
Taken in its entirety, lightning and all, this was a very strange game.
Kiffin's Play-Calling Contributed to That Odd Rhythm
Be it far from me to question Lane Kiffin's genius offensive mind, but did anyone else think that he called a strange game against Syracuse?
Using the pass to set up the run, Kiffin went often with the short-distance variety of passes as evidenced by Matt Barkley's 186 yards of passing on 23 completions.
Of course, the production itself can't be questioned when those 186 yards produced six touchdowns, but it seemed he went to the well too many times with the flanker screens, which sometimes were sniffed out by the Orange.
Last week the Trojans were pass-heavy on the offense; this week it was the rushing game that took center stage.
Just wait until Kiffin finds some balance eh?
The Trojans REALLY Need to Reduce the Penalties
Of course, the No. 1 way to disturb the flow of a football game is penalties and boy, did the Trojans have a boatload of those.
With 12 of those miscues, USC found ways to interrupt whatever progress they were making on either side of the ball, much to their coaches dismay.
From false starts to inopportune roughing-the-passer gaffes, the Trojans played sloppily far too often against a team that was all too happy to take advantage of their gifts.
Look for Kiffin and his coaching crew to make this a focus for this week's practices.
USC Still Has a Lot of Work to Do on Pass Defense
After finishing 102nd in the nation last year in pass defense, the need to tighten up that aspect of their game was a focus for the Trojans in 2012.
Upon completion of this game, consider that a work still in progress.
With Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib going off for 327 yards, the Trojans secondary will need to refocus its efforts to reduce the damage done by opposing gunslingers.
It should be noted that much of the damage was done to the corners opposite Nickell Robey but that only means that the defensive coaches know where the improvement is needed.
Now they have to get some results.
Defending the Pass Is Difficult When There Is Very Little Pass Rush
To be fair to the pass defense, it is difficult to keep receivers covered when there is very little in the way of pressure on the quarterback.
Unlike last week when the Trojans were constantly in Hawaii's backfield, against Syracuse the Trojans were much more mild-mannered.
With the exception of a George Uko sack and a nice day by end Morgan Breslin, including a tipped pass that was intercepted by linebacker Dion Bailey, USC's pass rush did not make life too difficult for Nassib and the Orange offense.
Of course, this is a young D-line and they will improve with time, but for all concerned the sooner, the better.
The Trojans Defense Still Has Problems with Third- and Fourth-Down Conversions
Since we are on the subject of the Trojans defense (or lack thereof), another very annoying habit that has carried over from last year is USC's inability to stop its opponents on third and fourth down.
That disturbing trend continued against Syracuse, who managed to convert better than 50 percent of those situations by going 8-of-17 on third-down conversions and 2-of-2 on the fourth-down variety.
To make matters worse, more than a few of those were circumstances where the Orange needed more than just a couple of yards to convert.
For the Trojans to become the kind of defense that wins championships, they will need to find ways to stop their opponents when it is needed most.
How Badly Is Khaled Holmes Hurt?
Beyond the victory itself, the most significant thing to come out of this game is the loss of Trojan center Khaled Holmes.
Holmes, perhaps the finest center in college football, went down with what looked to be a significant lower leg injury in the fourth quarter.
And with him went the brains of the offensive line and a steadying influence who has played with Matt Barkley since his high school days at Mater Dei in Santa Ana, Ca.
Redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi came in for Holmes and will be a fine center one day, but at this point he will have a lot of catching up to do to keep the offensive line functioning at the high level the Trojans are used to.
In the meantime, Trojan fans should pray long and hard for Holmes' health.
Make No Mistake About It, Marqise Lee and Robert Woods Are Simply Amazing
Even with the Trojans' long passing game almost non-existent against Syracuse, Marqise Lee and especially Robert Woods were unbelievable.
Lee, although limited to 65 yards, still caught 11 passes and three touchdowns and was a go-to guy when the Trojans needed tough yards against a foe determined to limit his downfield effectiveness.
Meanwhile, if there were ever any doubts about Robert Woods' surgically repaired ankle, those have now officially been put to bed.
Woods reminded everyone of just how great he is at full capacity by snagging 10 passes of his own for two touchdowns and taking an end-around for 76 yards.
Oh and just for good measure, Woods also returned a punt for 31 yards at a time when the Trojans needed a boost.
Is there a better twosome of receivers in the country?
I don't think so.
Have the Trojans Finally Found Their Rushing Game?
For USC to reach its full potential on offense, the Trojans must develop a reliable rushing game.
If their performance on the ground against Syracuse was any indication, they may have found it.
With 262 yards on 33 carries, USC finally found reliability pounding the rock in the form of both Silas Redd and Curtis McNeal, each of whom had nice games but especially so for Redd.
After going for 107 yards on only 15 carries, the Penn State transfer flashed the potential that so many thought he was capable of when he traveled across the country to play for the Trojans.
McNeal added 67 yards on 11 carries as the two-headed running back monster asserted itself against the Orange.
A good team wins games when it is not at its best. If this is the case, then the Trojans are that kind of team because they certainly were not at the top of their game against Syracuse.
Terribly inconsistent, bit by the penalty bug and the victim of a bizarre lightning delay when there was none present, USC could have found plenty of reasons to lose a long-distance road game against a motivated opponent.
That they found a way to win an ugly game is a credit to the kind of team they are but it still portends of trouble down the road.
If the Trojans expect to find themselves in the title game, they will have to eliminate the problems that hounded them in New York.
Fortunately for USC, the season is still young and there is time to fix the problems and build on the good.
But they better get after it now because soon they will be playing teams that will not let the Trojans off the hook so easily.
No one said it would be easy getting to the promised land for USC in 2012.
This game proved that beyond all doubt.