LOS ANGELES (AP) — Even after Robert Woods and Matt Barkley set two Southern California records with one sharp connection after another, the star receiver and his prolific quarterback still had to sweat out the final minutes against Minnesota on the Coliseum sideline.
That’s when the USC defense finally interrupted its own recent history by preserving a late lead for the Trojans.
Woods caught a school-record 17 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns, and 25th-ranked USC hung on to spoil Jerry Kill’s coaching debut for Minnesota in a 19-17 victory Saturday.
Barkley completed a school-record 34 passes for 304 yards for the Trojans, who still couldn’t score in the second half of their 14th consecutive season-opening victory. Minnesota freshman quarterback Max Shortell nearly led the Golden Gophers all the way back from a 16-point halftime deficit, but Torin Harris intercepted his final pass near midfield with 53 seconds left.
“I obviously had flashbacks to last year, but this is a new year and a new defense,” Barkley said of the Trojans, who blew several fourth-quarter leads and lost two games on field goals at the gun last season.
Until USC’s offense sputtered and collapsed in the second half, the Trojans opened their second season under coach Lane Kiffin with a display of dazzling aerial chemistry between Barkley and Woods. The sophomore receiver has sticky hands and burning speed — and now a place in the record books among Lynn Swann, Keyshawn Johnson, Dwayne Jarrett and the other great receivers.
Woods’ coaches saw this performance coming, telling Woods about Johnnie Morton’s school record of 15 catches during their preparations for the Gophers.
“We said, `It’s time to break it,”‘ Kiffin said.
After catching 11 passes for 115 yards in the first half, Woods tied Morton’s 1993 record with his 15th catch late in the third quarter. He surpassed Morton’s mark early in the fourth, but the rest of USC’s offense sputtered, with an inexperienced offensive line struggling to establish a running game.
“Not scoring a point (in the second half) is hard to imagine,” said Kiffin, who told his postgame television interviewer that the Trojans have “got two good players on our offense.”
Barkley went 34 for 45 with eight drops, according to Kiffin. The junior completed 16 straight passes during one stretch and surpassed Todd Marinovich’s 1989 record for completions in the fourth quarter, but Barkley watched the Gophers’ final drive with dread alongside Woods.
“We had a lot more penalties in the second half, and they just took over,” Woods said. “We couldn’t get anything done.”
Shortell came off the Gophers’ bench in the fourth quarter when starter MarQueis Gray went down with leg cramps, throwing a 12-yard TD pass to Brandon Green with 8:03 to play. The Trojans then converted two long-yardage first downs on their ensuing drive before a punt left Minnesota at its own 9 with 2:04 to play.
“We could have come out in the second half and just laid an egg and got blown out, but the way we played in the second half showed that some of our kids have bought in,” said Kill, who gathered his team around him in a huddle before heading to the locker room at halftime.
Minnesota came out stronger in the second half, stopping USC’s opening drive with a 32-yard loss when a fourth-down snap sailed over Barkley’s head, followed by a quick drive ending with Bennett’s 9-yard TD run.
Gray passed for 94 yards and rushed for 48 more in his first collegiate start at quarterback for the Gophers. Kill, who left Northern Illinois to take over a program with just one winning season in its last five, likely was more impressed by Shortell, who backed up his impressive camp with a 7-for-13 performance for 98 yards in the fourth quarter.
“I got a little nervous walking into the Coliseum, but once I got in there, it was time to play ball,” Shortell said.
Duane Bennett rushed for 53 yards and a score for Minnesota, which hadn’t visited the Coliseum since 1979 and hasn’t won a game in California since 1964.
After catching passes for most of his first two seasons at Minnesota, Gray took over the Gophers’ offense this year, starting his first game at quarterback since 2007 at his Indianapolis high school.
“I waited three years to be a quarterback, and to get cramps late in the third quarter and sit out most of the fourth quarter, this is going to be a hard pill for me to swallow,” Gray said.
Woods achieved his goal of seeing himself score on the Coliseum’s new 6,000-square-foot video board during USC’s opening drive. He made a 43-yard TD catch in the second quarter with a Minnesota defensive back draped all over him.
The Trojans failed on 2-point conversion attempts after both of their first two scores, with Kiffin explaining he saw defensive matchups he thought he could exploit. Instead, Rhett Ellison was tackled inside the 1, and Barkley made one of his only poor throws of the day. USC kicked an extra point after Woods’ 2-yard grab 49 seconds before halftime.
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