USC hangs on for a 17-14 victory over Virginia

USC’s defense is not as bad as it looked in the opener, the offense not nearly as good.

Those were the immediate impressions Trojans fans came away with Saturday night at the Coliseum after the 16th-ranked Trojans’ 17-14 victory over Virginia.

The undisciplined style that resulted in multiple costly penalties?

That remained consistent as the Trojans improved to 2-0 under first-year Coach Lane Kiffin.

Quarterback Matt Barkley passed for two touchdowns late in the first half and, though the defense gave up a last-minute touchdown, the Trojans earned a harder-than-expected victory over the Cavaliers, a near three-touchdown underdog playing their first game in California.

“I’m extremely disappointed with our performance,” Kiffin said. “That’s the most miserable 2-0 locker room I’ve ever been in, which is good. I think our players understand.”

The Trojans, however, are obviously not getting the message regarding penalties.

Last week they were flagged 11 times for 100 yards against Hawaii. They followed that up with 13 penalties for 140 yards against the Cavaliers. One penalty nullified a touchdown and another erased a fourth-down conversion.

“We’re not even close to getting it done,” said Kiffin, who added that he thought the Trojans were outcoached.

First-year Virginia Coach Mike London kept his team in the game, the Cavaliers tying the score in the second quarter and pulling to within the final three-point margin on a touchdown pass with four seconds left. USC recovered an onside kick, committing a penalty in the process, and hung on for the victory.

“No one gave us a chance to come in here and compete, but I thought we competed very well,” London said.

On the positive side, USC’s much-maligned defense showed that perhaps its season-opening performance was only a first-game stumble.

After giving up 36 points and 588 yards against Hawaii, the Trojans surrendered 340 yards against Virginia.

Sophomore safety T.J. McDonald, who had a game-high 14 tackles, thwarted a first-quarter scoring opportunity with his first career interception. The Trojans’ reshuffled defensive line also pressured Virginia quarterback Marc Verica.

“I don’t think it was ever that we needed to reestablish anything. It was more of tuning up the little things that we need to fix, and I feel like we did that,” said McDonald, who intercepted a pass by Verica in the end zone.

Meantime, Barkley overcame his own fumble and penalty after penalty to generate first-half touchdowns.

Barkley, who passed for five touchdowns without an interception against Hawaii, completed 20 of 35 for 202 yards without an interception.

“I was just saying, ‘Move on, move on,’” Barkley said of his message to teammates in the huddle after penalties. “‘Move on to the next play, forget about it and not let it happen again.’”

But it did, over and over again on a night when Virginia held USC to 127 yards rushing.

Marc Tyler, who entered the game as the Pacific 10 Conference’s leading rusher, was limited to 67 yards in 18 carries. Freshman Dillon Baxter, making his debut after sitting out against Hawaii because of a suspension for violating team rules, gained 49 yards in nine carries.

Barkley’s four-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Cameron, and his 11-yard strike to receiver Brandon Carswell in the final five minutes of the second quarter gave USC a 14-7 halftime lead. Joe Houston added a 34-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

But the Trojans once again could not get out of their own way.

USC was penalized seven times for 65 yards in the first two quarters, the most costly a holding penalty that nullified a 53-yard touchdown pass play from Barkley to receiver Ronald Johnson. The Trojans compounded the problem when Johnson was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Not exactly the showing USC was hoping for in its first appearance at the Coliseum since a lethargic loss to Arizona in the 2009 regular-season finale.

But don’t blame the defense.

A unit that was torched by Hawaii’s pistol offense held Virginia’s pro-style offense in check.

McDonald’s interception ended one threat, and the defense also stopped Verica’s fourth-and-one sneak attempt near midfield with 4 minutes 46 seconds left in the second quarter.

That set up USC’s first scoring drive, which began with Barkley’s 11-yard completion to freshman receiver Robert Woods. On the next play, Barkley and Woods connected for a 44-yard gain that gave the Trojans a first-and-goal at the Cavaliers’ four.

Barkley found Cameron in the left corner of the end zone for the senior’s first career reception and a 7-0 lead.

The Cavaliers, however, came right back with a six-play, 69-yard drive, highlighted by Verica’s 27-yard completion to receiver Dontrelle Inman and capped by Keith Payne’s two-yard touchdown run.

Barkley then took control with 1:08 left in the half and drove the Trojans

76 yards, the key play a 20-yard scramble by Barkley that Virginia compounded with a late hit.

On third-and-10 from the Cavaliers’ 11, Barkley found Carswell for a touchdown with one second left to put the Trojans back in front. It was Carswell’s first career touchdown.

Verica got the Cavaliers close with a three-yard touchdown pass to Kris Burd in the final seconds. He finished 17 of 36 for 190 yards with a touchdown and an interception.