The second-ranked USC Trojans may not have looked their best on Saturday in their 42-29 victory over the Syracuse Orange at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., but under some difficult circumstances head coach Lane Kiffin cut his squad some slack.
Not only was it a long distance for a team to travel, the weather didn't help matters. Due to possible lightning, the second half was delayed and the game at times was played in rather soggy conditions.
"It was not an easy situation to come play in," said Kiffin, in the post-game press conference.
Kiffin also felt that the game lacked energy. In an NFL stadium that seats 82,566, the reported attendance was just 39,507, though USC fans outnumbered Syracuse.
While the Trojans earned a hard-fought win, Kiffin appeared to be deflecting off the perception that the USC should have dominated a game. Las Vegas oddsmakers favored the Trojans by 26.5 points, and the Orange were coming off a home loss to Northwestern.
On his 22nd birthday, Matt Barkley tied a career-high with six touchdown passes. It was still a less than ideal performance for the Heisman Trophy candidate as he only threw for 187 yards, and also had a pass intercepted. Barkley, a humble but demanding quarterback, may have felt that he fell short of his own lofty expectations against a questionable Syracuse defense that conceded 213 passing yards to Northwestern a week earlier.
Much of USC's 445 total yards came from the running game, as Silas Redd rushed for 107 yards on 15 carries, while Curtis McNeal ran the ball 11 times for 63 yards. Robert Woods's electric 76-yard scamper in the fourth quarter helped the total, as well.
While the offense appeared sharp, the Trojan defense may have some additional work to do. The Orange offense managed 455 total yards, though USC twice intercepted senior quarterback Ryan Nassib.
The Trojan secondary may be the area that receives the most attention. Though the Syracuse offense has a veteran passing attack and a strong reputation for their ability to move the ball, Nassib seemed to have too easy of a time finding receivers that weren't covered by cornerback Nickell Robey.
In the post-game news conference, Kiffin stated that the secondary has to do a better job, as that they conceded "way too many fades."
What may also cause Kiffin to take pause was the comeback by Syracuse in the second half. The Orange pulled to within 21-16 late in the third quarter, and suddenly the rabid USC fans who made the trek from the West Coast may have felt that a victory was no longer a sure thing.
The Trojans, however, remained resilient. The squad got a major lift from tight end Xavier Grimble, who couldn't be brought down by four Syracuse tacklers as he muscled his way to a 22-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter.
"Four tackles shows how big and strong of a player that he is," said Woods, who is also Grimble's roommate. "It was a great play."
Barkley added that Grimble's rugged run was "a testament to the way we practice." The offense is expected to keep moving despite collisions, and finish the play through by continuing downfield.
The Trojans may need more efforts like Grimble's if they hope to return to the National Championship game. The talent-rich roster will likely be tested by harsher circumstances than just a long distance to travel, some unpleasant weather, and an efficient opposing pass attack.
A key to the USC season might be learning how to deal with situations like the ones on Saturday.
When the Trojans went undefeated in the 2004 season, they overcame a thick fog in Corvallis, Ore., in their ninth game of the season when Reggie Bush returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to give them some breathing room against a stubborn Oregon State squad.
It was USC's ability to fend off the Beavers under less than ideal conditions that helped pave their way to one of the best seasons in college football history.
While the 2012 Trojans remain among the favorites to contend for the title with a wealth of talent in Barkley, Woods, Redd, and budding star receiver Marqise Lee, grit and determination may be the deciding factor of USC's success.