Road-weary USC hopes to get sharper at home

Associated Press  |  Last updated October 18, 2012
(Eds: Updates. With AP Photos.) By GREG BEACHAM AP Sports Writer After traipsing from the humid New Jersey swamps to rain-soaked Seattle over the past few weeks, Matt Barkley is awfully grateful to be back in the Southern California sunshine. With a travel-heavy first half of the year finally behind them, the No. 11 Trojans (5-1, 3-1 Pac-12) will leave Los Angeles just once for the rest of the regular season, which begins with Saturday's visit from lowly Colorado. USC doesn't blame the schedule for its unintimidating performances thus far, but it's clear the preseason's No. 1 team probably will benefit from the comforts of home. ''Seems like we've been away for a long time,'' Barkley said. ''You don't hear guys talk about it, but I think you'll see it in the next couple of games. We don't like to think it affects us, but being back at the Coliseum will be a big help.'' Although the Trojans have hardly been the juggernaut many expected, Barkley and his teammates believe their lofty goals are still achievable if they settle into a flow of strong play after a disjointed month since their only loss at Stanford. With a relatively healthy roster and motivation to land a big destination for their first bowl game since 2009, the Trojans realize they'll need four strong performances at the Coliseum during visits from Colorado, Oregon, Arizona State and Notre Dame over the next six weeks. USC, which was No. 10 in the first BCS standings, had just one home game in a 48-day stretch between its season opener and Saturday. By comparison, Oregon has been on the road just once - and it was only a trip to Seattle for a neutral-site game with Washington State. ''We've been in a very weird rhythm, with the bye and all the road games,'' coach Lane Kiffin said. ''But now we've got six Saturday games in a row, most of them at home. It's nice to be in the rhythm of being in your own hotel (before games) and not having to get on a plane. ... We're just relieved to make it through not just four road games, but the long trip back East, the preseason hype, everything.'' The Trojans went back to work on campus this week with hopes of finding that rhythm, which has eluded them so far. USC has won three straight games since that seven-point loss to the Cardinal, but the Trojans haven't beaten anybody impressively since their season opener, content to grind out ugly victories that have left their fans wondering why a talent-loaded team isn't flattening everything in its path. ''We knew every game would be even tougher this year,'' said All-American receiver Robert Woods, who has 36 catches for 360 yards and five touchdowns. ''Whenever another team plays USC, they're going to treat it like their biggest game. Every week we have to be prepared for that.'' Yet the Trojans aren't handling it perfectly: USC leads the FBS with an average of 10 penalties per game, and the spate of road games can't be the only explanation. The Trojans also are 112th of 120 teams in third down efficiency, an improbable development for a team with their wealth of offensive talent. That talent has been offset by deficiencies in other areas. USC still hasn't decided on a starting left tackle midway through the season, with Kiffin re-opening the competition this week between Max Tuerk and Aundrey Walker, the Trojans' most-penalized player. USC didn't bank many style points during its road trips to Washington, Utah, Stanford and East Rutherford, N.J., to face Syracuse. Their 13-point win over the Orange was the only thing close to a blowout, and the Trojans are back home after a pair of workmanlike 10-point wins over the Utes and Huskies. Barkley's Heisman Trophy chances are waning with each week, yet the senior leaves little doubt he would gladly skip a trip to New York in December for the chance to play in Miami or Pasadena in January. ''Defenses have tried to play us different ways over the last couple of weeks, knowing our passing attack,'' Barkley said with a shrug after going 10 for 20 for 167 yards at Washington. ''We've been running the ball tremendously well. It's team-first.'' Colorado's visit would seem to provide a perfect opportunity for Barkley, Woods and Marqise Lee to show off before the Trojans travel to Arizona for their only remaining out-of-town game. Kiffin won't promise any offensive fireworks, sticking to his determination to keep banking wins with a steady running game and a defense that has been better than many expected. The Trojans are hoping those beauty-pageant victories just happen naturally when they're in front of their 90,000 fans. ''We need to get in front of our fans and get some momentum going,'' safety T.J. McDonald said. ''We're finally home now. This is our chance to do that.''
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