LOS ANGELES – Much of the emphasis from the USC coaches this week in practice was centered around the need to play a complete game. In the two games before Saturday's 38-17 win over Syracuse, the Trojans had played well in spurts but also had letdowns that twice resulted in the need for a final defensive stop to preserve a win.
When the Trojans took a 17-3 halftime lead Saturday night, the coaches reminded the players once again of the importance of finishing the game the right way.
"We talked a lot about putting together a two-half game, because that's not something we've done yet this year," senior running back Marc Tyler said.
On the opening drive of the third quarter, it looked like the Trojans had listened intently to their coaches and learned their lesson. A Matt Barkley completion to Rhett Ellison, a couple Tyler runs and then a long 44-yard touchdown completion down to the middle to a wide open Randall Telfer made the score 24-3 and made for a happy Trojans sideline.
"That kind of emotion is what us older guys are used to around here," Tyler said. "It hasn't been that way lately, but we want to bring that back. We want to bring back the fun and the fire."
The touchdown to Telfer showcased a USC passing game that was able to get downfield against Syracuse. With Robert Woods having so much success early in the season (his 33 catches so far this year is a USC record for most receptions in a three-game span) it has been natural for opponents to bring an extra defender over to guard him, and the right play call can leave someone like Telfer wide open at times.
"It felt really good to get that first score coming out of halftime," senior wide receiver Brandon Carswell said. "We were moving, we were in a groove, Matt (Barkley) was doing his thing. It was good to have that kind of game."
Things were definitely going right for the Trojans to that point. But Syracuse threw a monkey wrench into the proceedings, moving down the field and connecting on a flea-flicker for a 28-yard touchdown play. Suddenly, USC was only up 24-10, and a familiar feeling began to creep into the Coliseum.
This was the point in the first two games where things changed. The Trojans had been in control until a third-quarter momentum shift. Was history about to repeat itself?
"We slipped up on defense and let a trick play go past us," sophomore cornerback Nickell Robey said. "We came back to the sideline and said, 'We cannot let this happen; we've got to keep the momentum.' We knew they were a strong second-half team, so we knew we had to do something, a turnover or a stop, something."
Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib immediately hit Nick Provo for 33 yards to move the ball inside the USC 40-yard line. Sensing the importance of the sequence, the Coliseum crowd came alive, pleading for the defense to make a stand.
That stand came courtesy of defensive linemen DaJohn Harris and Nick Perry and linebacker Shane Horton. On third-and-8 from the 35, Nassib rolled out and was quickly sacked by the gang of Trojans to force a Syracuse punt into the end zone.
It was at that point that Barkley calmly led the USC offense down the field on an eight-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a 43-yard touchdown pass to true freshman wide receiver Marqise Lee.
The Trojans then showed the previously-missing killer instinct. McNeal came down on kickoff coverage and made a huge play with a tackle at the Syracuse 10-yard line. Trojans defensive end Wes Horton followed up with another sack to help force a Syracuse punt.
"We had a sense of urgency in the huddle to finish the game right there," Wes Horton said. "I felt like that particular drive we made an emphasis to get off the field, and we did. That's what we needed."
After the Syracuse punt, the Trojans marched 70 yards in 10 plays, with Barkley hitting Grimble with a 9-yard touchdown pass to make the score 38-10. The Orange added another touchdown later, but it was far too little and too late.
"The best part of the game was the second half," USC coach Lane Kiffin said. "It was really nice to get a win that way. To come out like that and stop them, and then to move the ball the way we did was great to see.
"We ended the game on offense, and that was something we really wanted to do. The last two games it had come down to our defense having to make a play on the field to win the game. We really emphasized the need for the offense to finish this game."
Barkley finished with 324 passing yards and five touchdown throws, but he agreed with his coach about the most important part of the win.
"It was about time we played a game like that," Barkley said. "It felt like Trojan football again."
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.