LOS ANGELES -- One of the keys to success in the Trojans' passing game Saturday was the ability of receivers other than Robert Woods to step up and make contributions. The combination of Matt Barkley to Woods was as effective as usual, but the offense wouldn't have worked had it been simply a two-man show.
Teams have shown the natural tendency to double-cover Woods, with a safety offering help to the corner. It's a strategy that can slow down Woods, but it should leave other USC receivers open to make plays. The best example of this against Syracuse was the third-quarter touchdown pass to Randall Telfer. When the safety moved too far in his efforts to help cover Woods on a sideline route, Barkley instantly read it and hit a wide-open Telfer streaking down the seam for a 44-yard scoring play.
"Defenses change what they do because of Robert," USC head coach Lane Kiffin said. "Look at the touchdown pass to Randall, he was so wide open because of the respect the defense had for Robert.
"That's one of our goals for this offense. We know Robert is going to be able to produce, but he can also help the other guys by creating opportunities for them. If they come through, it becomes almost impossible to stop. People ask why other receivers like Marqise Lee would come to USC when there are already All-Americans like Robert on the roster, but those players actually benefit from playing with him."
There were other pass-catchers who came through against Syracuse, as well. Rhett Ellison got the scoring started with a 5-yard touchdown reception, and he finished with five receptions. Brandon Carswell had five catches as well, including some critical first-down grabs to keep drives alive. Lee had a spectacular 43-yard touchdown catch (his first TD as a Trojan), and Xavier Grimble finished off the night with a TD catch of his own. Of course, Woods also included a touchdown catch among his eight receptions.
The fact that Barkley completed five touchdown passes to five receivers is an indictator that the offense was clicking at a high level.
"We had a full game on offense, and everyone pitched in," Barkley said. "If Robert is getting doubled, then we will give the ball to our other guys, and they are more than capable of carrying us."
Barkley riding high
There was a lot of hope coming into the season that Barkley would get off to a fast start and take his game to that proverbial next level. Well, based on the first three games it's safe to say, "Mission accomplished." Barkley is completing 69 percent of his passes with a 9-1 TD-INT ratio. His performance against Syracuse was magnificent, and the fact that more hasn't been made of it is a testament to his talent.
"Matt was awesome in this game," Kiffin said. "I could've focused the first 10 minutes of my postgame press conference talking about him, but I only spent about 30 seconds on him. It's pretty cool that we expect that around here, that those are our standards. We've become so accustomed to seeing those types of games around here at USC, with guys like Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart, but we have to remember that they really don't happen that often, especially when you're going against a team that was ranked seventh in the country in defense last year."
The Trojans are starting two redshirt freshmen at the outside linebacker spots in Hayes Pullard and Dion Bailey. All those two did against Syracuse was lead the team in tackles -- with Bailey accumulating nine and Pullard seven. Each player had a tackle for loss, and Bailey also added a forced fumble and a sack.
Bailey has shown the playmaking ability that was evident in his high school career as a safety, and Pullard has the kind of instincts and physical style that fit right in at the linebacker spot. Both will be tested more as the year goes along and the Trojans face tougher running foes, but so far the move to go with these two athletic players has definitely paid off.
McNeal making his case
Don't be surprised if Curtis McNeal makes a push for the No. 2 running back spot this week. Curtis was productive in his opportunities Saturday (five carries for 79 yards) and he also made a huge special teams play with a kickoff-coverage tackle at the Syracuse 10-yard line.
"Curtis McNeal had a big night for us after only touching the ball a few times last week," Kiffin said. "He ran well and made plays on special teams."
When you combine the solid performance from McNeal with D.J. Morgan's two fumbles, it's possible that McNeal will move ahead of Morgan in the running back rotation. Both players were extremely competitive in fall camp, and Kiffin definitely has an appreciation for what McNeal can do with the ball in his hands.
As a side note, Kiffin said the final pass play against Syracuse when Barkley got sacked was an attempt to get McNeal a touchdown. McNeal battled academic issues in the offseason, and those within the program have a lot of respect for the way he has overcome adversity to get to this point.
Cornering the market
Kiffin expressed concern about the cornerback spot heading into the Syracuse game, and while Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib hit on his first 11 passes, he didn't end up doing too much damage. Nickell Robey played his usual solid game, including a third-down, open-field tackle on the opening drive, which limited Syracuse to a field goal. Torin Harris got the start opposite Robey, and he was thrown at a lot. Naturally there were some completions against him, but overall Harris had a respectable game. Anthony Brown got his first extended action covering the slot receiver in the nickel package. It was a new role for him, but Brown handled himself well and showed why the coaches think he has so much potential.
Hitting the road
After three games at home, the Trojans will take to the road this week for what should be a spirited atmosphere at Sun Devil Stadium. ASU is coming off a tough loss at Illinois, so it certainly doesn't want to lose two in a row at the start of what is expected to be a promising season. Dennis Erickson has a lot of returning players, led by an attacking defense, and the Devils should provide the strongest test to date for this USC team.
Notes on a Trojans scorecard
Woods has set a USC record for the most receptions in a three-game span with 33. The previous mark was 32, set by Keyshawn Johnson to end the 1995 season. ... Andre Heidari might have missed, but it says something about the growing confidence the coaches have in their young kicker that they let him attempt a 46-yard field goal. ... USC won the all-important battle of third-down conversions by successfully executing 10 of 14 while the Orange made 8 of 15. ... The Trojans also won the sack battle, getting to Nassib three times, including two timely sacks that helped maintain momentum in the third quarter. Syracuse managed only one sack of Barkley, on the final drive ... Barkley was named the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Syracuse.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.