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USC plays a different tune in 32-21 victory over Minnesota

Lane Kiffin refused to grin.

He would not allow himself to feel satisfied.

After 18th-ranked USC remained unbeaten with a 32-21 victory Saturday over Minnesota, the Trojans’ first-year coach said, “We’ve got to learn to enjoy wins better.”

Ya think?

USC’s season-opening victory at Hawaii left Kiffin disappointed. An unstylish win over Virginia at the Coliseum produced what Kiffin described as a “miserable” locker room.

But the USC locker room at TCF Bank Stadium was alive with the joyful sounds of players singing “Fight On” for the first time this season after the Trojans pulled away from a stubborn Minnesota team for their third victory.

Permission to sing came courtesy of a coach who is still waiting for his team to play a complete game.

“We are 3-0, and so that’s a good thing,” Kiffin acknowledged as he walked to the team bus. “It was the first time I felt like they deserved to be able to sing. . . . They sang it twice so I think they had been holding it in.”

It was a game of firsts on several fronts for the Trojans.

— For the first time this season, Kiffin unleashed senior tailback Allen Bradford, who rushed for 133 yards in 12 carries and scored on a 56-yard run that put the Trojans out of reach.

— Freshman Robert Woods scored his first touchdown on a kickoff return that changed the momentum after Minnesota had taken a third-quarter lead.

— One play after sophomore safety Jawanza Starling got his first interception, Trojans quarterback Matt Barkley had his first pass intercepted this season. A second interception set up Minnesota’s go-ahead touchdown.

But USC players, including Barkley, were upbeat after the Trojans shut down the Golden Gophers rushing attack, forced three turnovers and dispatched a Big Ten Conference opponent for the 10th time in a row.

“It does feel good to win like this,” said Barkley, who completed 17 of 26 passes for 192 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown to Ronald Johnson and a 21-yard touchdown to David Ausberry. “Singing the fight song in the locker room felt great, but still not a complete game, what we’ve talked about trying to do.”

Bradford has been trying to break into the starting lineup for more than four years.

Kiffin said no decision had been made on whether Bradford would unseat junior Marc Tyler as the No. 1 tailback, but the former Colton High star made his case with the Trojans heading to lowly Washington State next week for their Pacific 10 Conference opener.

The 6-foot, 230-pound Bradford was No. 1 on the depth chart at the end of spring practice. Tyler, however, earned the designation for the season opener with more consistent practice performances, according to coaches.

Against Virginia, Bradford had only three carries for 10 yards. But he refused to complain after practices last week, saying he would continue to “prepare like a pro” and be ready for his opportunity.

It came in the first quarter against Minnesota in a series that recalled the tailback-by-committee approach favored by former coach Pete Carroll. Freshman Dillon Baxter carried on first down, Tyler on second and then Bradford broke off an 11-yard run for a first down.

Bradford’s next carry netted 12 yards and he was on his way, shouldering the Trojans’ power-running approach in the second half.

“I knew once my number was called I was going to go out there and play hard,” Bradford said. “I was supposed to be the starter but things happen. Whenever an opportunity comes knocking, I’m going to answer.”

That’s exactly what Woods did late in the third quarter after Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber had found receiver Da’John McKnight for a 31-yard touchdown that put the Golden Gophers ahead, 14-13.

Woods caught the ball on the three-yard line near the USC sideline, got a block from Shane Horton and another from DaJohn Harris and then sprinted past kicker Eric Ellestad to the end zone.

“We had this place really on fire and then we gave up a kickoff return,” said Minnesota Coach Tim Brewster, whose team was looking to bounce back from last week’s upset loss to South Dakota.

USC’s defense gave up a late touchdown for the third consecutive game, but the unit showed for the first time that it could shut down the run.

Gophers running back Duane Bennett, who had rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the first two games, gained only six yards against a Trojans defense that gave up 83 yards rushing. The Trojans also sacked Weber twice and forced the four-year starter into throwing his first two interceptions this season.

“Their whole talk all week was [Minnesota would] try to run the ball down our throat so all week we practiced on stopping the run, making big plays in the backfield and make sure the running back doesn’t do what he had been doing,” said Trojans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey, who had a team-best nine tackles.

Kiffin warned that the Trojans must avoid interceptions and critical penalties when they hit tougher competition.

That won’t happen until USC plays Washington at the Coliseum on Oct. 2.

In the meantime, Kiffin invoked a phrase he has used so often after the first three games it could almost be a lyric to another Trojans fight song.

“We have a long, long ways to go,” he said, “and a lot of stuff to work on.”

gary.klein@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesklein


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