Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times (ma26ehpd20120908182745/600 )
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — — Out of the spitting rain and misty gloom he skipped, from the field into the tunnel toward the locker room, this tough USC football player singing like a child.
"It's over!" shrieked Marqise Lee. "We get to go home! It's over!"
The relief dripped off him like the water stains that darkened his gold pants. The thrill of escape glowed like the studs in his ears.
The Trojans did not fall Saturday, but they stumbled. They were filled with drama, but lacked energy. They were occasionally brilliant, but often blah.
They won a game, but endangered their No. 2 spot in the national rankings after a 42-29 victory over overmatched Syracuse that should not have been that close.
Thunderstorms filled the skies above MetLife Stadium with cluster of black, spitting clouds while delaying the game for more than an hour at halftime. For a Trojan team that seemed to regress from the opening win against Hawaii, the forboding was fitting.
"We didn't play our best game, we know that," said safety T.J. McDonald. "We'll take the win, but we've got to get better at a lot of things."
Syracuse, a school located four hours north, has such a struggling football program that most of the fans in the half-filled stadium were from USC. Yet entering the fourth quarter, the Orange had the ball with a chance to take the lead.
Typical USC video-game craziness saved the Trojans — two long Robert Woods runs, Xavier Grimble breaking four tackles to score on a pass — but the overwhelming feeling was a question.
Is the preseason top-ranked team better than this?
Are they really the kind of team to be outgained by 10 yards by a team that has had one winning record in the last 10 years?
Isn't Matt Barkley a better downfield passer than to throw for only 187 yards amid his school-record tying six touchdown passes?
And what about those dozen penalties, including two consecutive we-don't-know-the-formation flags thrown on one drive?
As players grabbed their packages of Mexican fast food and headed into the rainy night afterward, one could hear them repeating, "A win is a win."
Well, not really, not in college football, where the Trojans need to be as pretty as possible in every game now in order to protect against voters using any blemish to later deny them a shot at a national championship. As Kiffin walked down the tunnel to the bus late Saturday, I asked if he thought a win like this could actually hurt his team in December, and he shrugged.
"I know what people are going to say, and I don't care," he said. "I wouldn't have said that a few years ago when I was offensive coordinator; I would have been worried why we didn't score more points, but I'm past all that now."
Where is he now? Kiffin said he's at two years ago.
"Whenever I'm tempted to think like that, I think back to two years ago when we were on probation and couldn't go anywhere," Kiffin said. "I'm like, if we're ranked 1, 2, 3, whatever, that's all a pretty good place to be."
Fair point. It's a shame that after all this program has endured, it can't be satisfied with simply a victory.
But in college football, that sort of satisfaction often comes back to burn you.
McDonald basically said as much in a halftime speech to a team that led, 14-3. He said he saw them lying around the strange locker room during this strange thunderstorm and wondered if they understood what was at stake.
"Guys were kind of sitting around. I just told them we got a lot of work to do; we don't get any second chance at this," McDonald said. "We have to get what we want. There are no second chances."
This is especially true for Barkley, who turned 22 Saturday and ended the game being serenaded by teammates who sang "Happy Birthday." But before that, he raised eyebrows by mostly throwing short passes to Lee and Woods, and then later said his shoulder was being worked on during the rain delay.
Barkley's only truly long pass was thrown short and intercepted, and Kiffin said he actually structured the game plan to prevent such mistakes.
But those six touchdown passes keep him in the Heisman lead, and Kiffin wondered how he could have been more impressive.
"I mean, come on, six touchdown passes," Kiffin said. "We need to step back and appreciate what we're seeing with Matt. We don't have much time left with him, and I'm going to appreciate every moment."
Those moments will only get tougher from here, and the Trojans need to get tougher with them.
If this were three-man football, the trio of Barkley, Woods and Lee would dominate. But at times, it's as is some of their teammates simply wait for them to win it.
The secondary seems disjointed. The offensive line is still finding its feet. The intensity is occasionally missing. The Trojans have enough dazzlers — they need more grinders like Grimble, whose 22-yard touchdown catch clinched the win.
"That was amazing," said Lee. "That was crazy."
Sounds like a Trojan season that thus far has been both.