USC: Khaled Holmes

Veteran duo anchors right side of OL

July, 25, 2013
7/25/13
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There has been plenty of attention on the USC offensive line this spring, almost all of it pointed in three directions -- the battle for the vacant center position, Aundrey Walker’s bid to nail down the starting left tackle job, and the impact of Mike Summers, the newly hired assistant who has joined James Cregg as one of what is now two offensive line coaches on the Trojans staff.

Over on the right side of the line, meanwhile, guard John Martinez and tackle Kevin Graf have each quietly had a more-than-productive March and April. Two redshirt seniors set to start alongside each other for the third straight year, there’s nothing particularly glamorous about the hard-nosed duo, but as the unquestioned veteran leaders of an offensive line unit that is still very much a work in progress, they figure to play a vital part in determining how the group ultimately performs in the fall.

“We’re the right side, we have the most experience and we plan on leading these guys to wherever we need to go,” Martinez said.

[+] EnlargeJohn Martinez
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIWhile parts of the offensive line remain in flux, John Martinez will start at right guard for the third consecutive season.
Graf and Martinez are hoping that means a more consistent level of play for the offensive line next season. Because although it performed solidly for the most part in 2012 -- allowing just 17 sacks on the year -- it also struggled against some of the more physical defensive fronts, most notably Stanford’s and Notre Dame’s. Throw in the loss of Khaled Holmes -- the team’s starting center for the past two years -- and it becomes apparent just how crucial this spring is.

With a change in philosophy set in place by Summers, however, in addition to the two seasoned vets paving the way, it’s safe to say that the offensive line has its sights set high for 2013.

“One thing Coach Summers has brought in this spring is that we talk about being the best offensive line in the country, and that’s what our goal is,” Graf said. “We’re here to be the best. We’re here to be the greatest offensive line in the country, and that’s what we need to work harder towards.”

In Graf, the Trojans have a prototypical tackle with 6-foot-6, 300-pound size to go along with deceptive athleticism and a unique football IQ that comes with growing up in a football family. His father, Allan, and brother, Derek, both played for the Trojans on the offensive line.

Martinez, at 6-2 and 305 pounds, is more of a brawler on the interior with a strong build and quick feet. Like Graf, he has football in his genes, with a number cousins having played collegiately, and a brother, Keni Kaufusi, currently on the California roster.

Both arrived at USC as members of the Class of 2009 during the Pete Carroll era. Graf, from Agoura Hills (Calif.), and Martinez, a Salt Lake City (Utah) Cottonwood, product actually first met at the Under Armor All-American Game that year and became fast friends.

That bond has transferred over to the field where, having made a total of 25 starts next to each other, the two share a unique familiarity and comfort in the knowledge that they can always count on one another.

“We have trust,” Graf said. “I know that he’s going to have my back, and he knows that I’m going to have his, and that’s the most important thing.”

In particular, it’s the relative ease with which they can communicate with each other on the line in the heat of battle that works not only to their own benefit, but to that of the entire offense.

[+] EnlargeKevin Graf
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireRight tackle Kevin Graf will start alongside John Martinez for the third year in a row this fall.
“He knows what needs to happen if I need help, and I know what needs to happen if he needs help on certain assignments with pass protections and everything like that,” Martinez said. “So I definitely feel like familiarity and the sense of communication that we have with each other really helps out a lot during the games.”

“We’ll have full-on conversations on the line, because we know that we need to be able to communicate with each other -- we need to be able to see everything, and that definitely helps,” added Graf. “And when you’ve been training with someone next to you for three years, it’s almost easy.”

But their synchronicity on the field isn’t the only reason for their success. Having made names for themselves both in the weight room and on the practice field for the determined way in which they go about their work, they continue to strive to improve.

“We’re still getting better,” Graf said. “When we first started, we were just sophomores, and by the time you’re a senior, you’ve grown a lot in terms of your maturity, and you’ve grown up as a player and a person, but you can still get better every day, and that’s what we do.”

With a work ethic like that, their emergence as leaders over the last year has developed naturally. This spring, however, they’ve each taken that responsibility up a notch.

“I definitely think that I’ve stepped up as a leader, because now that Khaled is gone it’s our turn,” Martinez said. “You have to have someone fill that role on a team, and I feel like that’s what me and Kevin have done on the offensive line. We have the experience to lead them and to show them the path to take.”

“I’m not going to be here forever, and John isn’t going to be here forever, so when the time comes for us to leave, the younger guys need to be ready,” Graf said.

Following the lead of Graf and Martinez, there are signs the offensive line is slowly starting to come together. The two vets are part of a starting unit that features Marcus Martin at center, Max Tuerk at left guard and Walker at left tackle. Over the past two weeks of practice, there has been a noticeable improvement in the group’s level of play.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride, but I feel like everything is starting to come together now,” Martinez said. “Spring break is over, we’ve got all of the jitters out and everyone is here to play ball. That’s what we need to do, because the offensive line had a decent season last year, and now we need to make a point to everyone else that we’re the foundation of the offense.”

If the offensive line does fulfill Martinez’s goal in establishing that mindset, it’s not far-fetched to imagine both he, as well as Graf, capping their USC careers off on the right note in 2013.

“Finishing off strong is important for us as seniors,” Martinez said. “I definitely think that we’re going to make a point to everybody that we mean business, and we’re going to hold down that right side.”

Barkley, Woods look to make NFL mark

March, 27, 2013
3/27/13
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The Trojans will hold their annual NFL pro day on Wednesday, a showcase for all draft-eligible players, but the spotlight will be shining brightest on the workout of Matt Barkley.

After not being able to take part in the Senior Bowl or the NFL Combine due to an injured shoulder, this will be the opportunity for Barkley to prove to coaches and scouts that he is healthy and deserving of a first-round selection.

Because Barkley hasn't thrown since getting injured against UCLA, there are many questions about his draft status. Will he be a first-day pick or will he fall into the second round? So much will depend upon the health of the shoulder and how he performs in the roughly 60 throws he will make to Robert Woods. There are no questions about his leadership and character but, in the end, an NFL quarterback needs to be able to make the throws, and that is what Barkley will need to show.

Woods will be looking to prove something himself, as well. This is a deep receiver draft and most mock drafts have him going in the second round, but a recent mock draft from Charley Casserly at NFL.com had Woods as a first-round pick. The main goal for Woods in this workout is to get a 40 time below 4.5. He ran 4.51 at the combine and getting into the 4.4 range would mean a lot in the constant jockeying for draft position.

This will also be the first opportunity to conduct a workout for center Khaled Holmes, who withdrew from the Senior Bowl and then got hurt during the weightlifting portion of the combine.

Others working out will include a trio of defensive backs in T.J. McDonald, Nickell Robey and Jawanza Starling along with defensive end Wes Horton and running back Curtis McNeal.

The USC Pro Day will be shown live on ESPN3 at 11:15 a.m. PT.

Roundtable: Season in review 

November, 29, 2012
11/29/12
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Marqise LeeMatt Kartozian/US PresswireMarqise Lee's 345-yard, two-touchdown performance against Arizona was universally lauded by the WeAreSC roundtable as one of the Trojans' best performances.
There were many ups and downs during the 2012 season. Give your responses on the following items (good or bad) that helped shape the season.

Biggest individual plays

Garry Paskwietz

Four Trojans earn Pac-12 academic honors

November, 20, 2012
11/20/12
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LOS ANGELES -- USC center Khaled Holmes and quarterback Matt Barkley were named to the Pac-12 all-academic teams Tuesday.

Holmes, a fifth-year senior starting his final home game for the Trojans this weekend against No. 1 Notre Dame, earned a 3.31 GPA and is now pursuing a post-graduate degree at USC. He earned first-team honors; Barkley has registered a 3.21 GPA in his communications major and was named to the second team.

Two other Trojans, special-teams contributor Charles Burks and punter Kyle Negrete, earned honorable mention with GPAs over 3.0.

Football players have to post at least a 3.0 GPA and contribute to their teams to earn Pac-12 all-academic honors.

USC's four players on the 108-man list was the second-lowest in the conference. Oregon and Colorado each had 16 players earn academic honors, Utah had 14 and Stanford had 12.

Only Arizona State, with just one player, had fewer honorees than the Trojans.

W2W4: USC-UCLA

November, 16, 2012
11/16/12
5:34
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The USC Trojans (No. 18 BCS, No. 21 AP) and UCLA Bruins (No. 17 BCS, No. 17 AP) haven't matched up in a game that meant this much in a long time.

The winner of Saturday's 12 p.m. PT game at the Rose Bowl will secure the Pac-12 South title and earn a trip to the conference championship to compete for a bid to another game at the Rose Bowl.

Here are 10 things to watch in the winner-take-all matchup:

1. Mora vs. Kiffin. Long-term, the most important takeaway from this game will be who takes the upper hand between the two coaches who seem destined for a nice rivalry. Jim Mora and Lane Kiffin have the perfect mix of similarities and differences to make things interesting -- coaching bloodlines, NFL failures and recruiting successes, plus their opposite personalities. Mora is engaging and exciting as a speaker; Kiffin is, at his best, mildly entertaining. But who's a better coach? Perhaps we'll find out on Saturday.

2. More Marqise Lee. Lee hasn't lost any of his luster over the past couple of weeks, as he continues to be probably the second-hottest player in the country, behind only Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. The whole defense thing from last week didn't work out, and Lee said he won't be playing there this week, but even so, he should be able to exploit a weak UCLA secondary. Lee is just 14 catches, 86 yards and four touchdowns away from breaking the Pac-12 single-season marks in all three categories.

3. Strength vs. weakness. If this isn't a recipe for abject disaster, what is? UCLA's biggest weakness is its secondary, and specifically, at corner. USC's biggest strength is its receivers, the top pass-catching duo in the nation. If the Bruins single-cover Lee with Sheldon Price or Aaron Hester at any point, they'll essentially be inviting the Trojans to score a touchdown. If they double- or triple-cover him, they'll be inviting Kiffin to re-explore throwing the ball to Robert Woods, which has never worked out too poorly for USC.

4. Hundley and Franklin. USC has Lee and Matt Barkley. UCLA has Brett Hundley and Johnathan Franklin, and the Bruins' duo isn't far off in terms of overall excitement and ability to explode for dynamic plays. It'll be particularly interesting to see how the Trojans try to stop Franklin, who has reinvented himself this season as an outside runner after running mostly between the tackles in the old Bruins scheme. As for Hundley, he's a dual-threat quarterback who has been more effective as a passer than a runner, and he makes his living passing short to backs and tight ends. In fact, only one of the Bruins' top four receivers is an actual wide receiver, and only four of Hundley's 24 touchdown passes have gone to an actual receiver, not counting newly healthy running back/receiver Damien Thigpen.

5. The offensive lines. No, they won't be battling directly against one another, but the Trojans' and Bruins' lines will collectively determine a lot of what happens at the Rose Bowl. UCLA's offensive line is particularly young and hasn't kept Hundley off the ground, but the Trojans' linemen probably would've been on the hook for more sacks if Kiffin didn't call so many three-step drops because of them. Who will step up to the occasion? If there's an indicator, maybe it's that USC starts a fifth-year senior at center in Khaled Holmes, and UCLA starts a redshirt freshman, Jake Brendel.

(Read full post)

The USC 10: Week 10 

November, 5, 2012
11/05/12
3:04
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Each week, the WeAreSC staff will update the rankings to reflect which USC players are making the biggest impact.

Here is the USC 10 following the 62-51 loss to Oregon:

1. Marqise Lee: The most dynamic player in college football had 12 catches for 157 yards and a pair of touchdowns while also adding a Pac-12-record 251 kickoff-return yards.

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What went wrong against Arizona

October, 27, 2012
10/27/12
10:42
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TUCSON, Ariz. -- The team committing the most penalties per game in the FBS this season, Lane Kiffin's USC Trojans, committed 13 more on Saturday against the Arizona Wildcats, costing themselves 117 crucial yards.

It also cost them the game.

The Trojans' lack of discipline did them in against a Wildcats team they should have comfortably beat. Instead, Arizona won, 39-36, and USC's national-title hopes are officially over. The Rose Bowl game is the only reasonable goal, now.

Perhaps most telling was Kiffin's response to a question about what else he could do to get through to his team on the discipline issue.

"I'm open for any suggestions," Kiffin said, oddly grinning. "I've tried it all."

The Trojans are two-thirds of the way through their regular season. It might be a little too late for suggestions.

Now they await an Oregon Ducks squad that has thoroughly dominated every team it's played this year, and 6-2 USC seems perhaps unlikely to finish the season with anything less than three losses.

On paper, USC has as much offensive talent as any team in the country; and the Trojans' defense hasn't been bad this year. The real problem is discipline ... and big penalties at big moments in the game.

"They hurt a lot," Kiffin said of the untimely flags.

Like the late hit T.J. McDonald was called for in the fourth quarter.

USC's players certainly noticed the flags. Running back Silas Redd said he couldn't believe the Trojans committed 13 more penalties, after averaging 10 through their first seven games.

"The discipline was not there today," said cornerback Josh Shaw: "That was very evident."

D.J. Morgan, USC's leading rusher on the day, offered a more in-depth assessment. He said a number of his teammates played irresponsibly against the Wildcats.

"I feel like some people let their emotions get to them and affect them and committed some selfish penalties," Morgan said. "Penalties are gonna happen in a game. But personal fouls and those ones, we have to be more aware of the situation and be more calm and let them be the ones to mess up.

"We can't retaliate."

Defensive tackle Leonard Williams, who was charged with a personal foul for removing Ka'Deem Carey's helmet in the first quarter, said he wasn't retaliating. He said he wasn't even responsible for removing Carey's helmet ... and he didn't know who did it.

Accountability is clearly an issue, too.

Center Khaled Holmes, one of the Trojans' senior leaders, said he wouldn't call his team undisciplined, although he allowed that emotion did get the best of them at times on Saturday.

Holmes also said USC still had time to redeem itself this season, beginning with Oregon and continuing with Notre Dame and a surprising UCLA team next month.

"If we do well, then this will all be forgotten about," Holmes said.

Unfortunately for USC, that's not totally true. Preseason No. 1 teams who finish with two losses are still considered disappointments.

The USC 10: Week 8 rankings 

October, 22, 2012
10/22/12
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Whenever a team wins 50-6, as USC did on Saturday, there are always plenty of standouts. Here are the 10 players who made the biggest impact on the Trojans' rout of Colorado.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley
Jonathan Moore/Getty ImagesSaturday's 50-6 win over Colorado was all about Matt Barkley and Robert Woods.
1. Matt Barkley: Setting the Pac-12 career touchdown mark -- and a single-game-completion-percentage record as well -- will earn Barkley the top spot once again.

2. Robert Woods: Barkley wasn’t the only record-breaker as Woods got into the action by setting the all-time USC receptions mark while also becoming the first Trojan to catch four touchdowns in one game.

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No-huddle offense could be the answer

October, 21, 2012
10/21/12
8:42
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LOS ANGELES -- The records are nice and the score will look good in a couple of months, but if there's one thing to take away from the USC Trojans' 50-6 dismantling of Colorado at the Coliseum on Saturday, it's this: USC might be better equipped to take down Oregon than we realized.

More specifically, maybe the Trojans can make a no-huddle offense work for them, too. Oregon has done it to perfection in recent years. USC broke it in Saturday for the first time and looked pretty good doing it, albeit against the dismal Buffaloes.

Coach Lane Kiffin admitted Saturday that his team has been practicing the no-huddle all season. He just kept it under wraps until now to surprise the Trojans' next two opponents in Arizona and Oregon.

Now, the Wildcats and Ducks have to prepare for it. Even if USC doesn't break it out in either of the next two games, that's still one thing more to account for.

"That's why we do a lot of the stuff that we do," Kiffin said Sunday.

And if the Trojans do show more no-huddle, then, well, it'll be interesting.

"We didn't do the no-huddle wanting Arizona or whoever to see it," USC receivers coach Tee Martin said after Saturday's game. "We did the no-huddle because it gave us an advantage today."

So, does that mean they'll use it again?

"If Arizona and whoever gives us that advantage, then maybe so," Martin said. "If not, we'll do our normal stuff."

Center Khaled Holmes didn't say the Trojans were better in a no-huddle offense, but he did say they were about as good. Considering the newness of it, that's about the same thing.

"I think the whole offensive line, the whole offense, is successful and comfortable at that pace," Holmes said Saturday. "We were successful tonight, too, which always makes us seem more comfortable."

Kiffin has long said that quarterback Matt Barkley is comfortable adjusting plays at the line and calling audibles based on defensive schemes. Running a successful no-huddle doesn't require much more than that from the quarterback.

And, based on how USC's play-calling has routinely rotated between a select group of plays, it wouldn't limit Kiffin's creativity too much to narrow things down to a few options for Barkley to select from at the line.

Coincidence or not, USC also didn't commit a false-start or delay-of-game penalty against Colorado. The Trojans were called for nine of those over the previous two weeks.

Kiffin attributed most of that to playing on the road the previous two games, but also allowed that his team reacted well to the increased speed of the no-huddle offense.

Arizona coach, Rich Rodriguez, is a no-huddle pioneer, so it all lines up for another test this Saturday.

USC Awards Tracker: Week 7 

October, 16, 2012
10/16/12
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Here is an update on the performances of USC players who have been named to various college football award watch lists:

[+] EnlargeDion Bailey
Ric Tapia/Icon SMIDion Bailey was a monster against Washington with seven tackles, an interception and a forced fumble.
LB Dion Bailey, So. (Bednarik, Nagurski, Lombardi, Butkus): Bailey contributed in many ways, tying for second on the team with seven tackles, intercepting an early pass and causing a late fumble.

QB Matt Barkley, Sr. (Camp, Maxwell, O’Brien): It was a pedestrian night by Barkley standards. He completed 10 of 20 passes for 167 yards with one touchdown and one interception.

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Holmes is USC's center of attention

October, 9, 2012
10/09/12
3:09
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LOS ANGELES – In the locker room after USC's 38-28 win at Utah last week, senior center Khaled Holmes cleared his throat and spoke up before coach Lane Kiffin even had a chance to address the team. Later, USC posted the video, crackling with postgame emotion, on its official Web site.

“Hey, I want to apologize personally and individually for putting us in a hole like that in a hostile environment,” Holmes said. “I want to thank you guys for having my back and never faltering in your confidence in me.”

One of his teammates then yells, “You already know it!”

Kiffin jumps in and says, “I think that’s a great example right there of a real man.”

USC’s season, which opened with so much hope, is only five games old, its meaningfulness teetering already in early October. Why is a player who can’t touch the ball after he snaps it at the center of this team’s story arc?

It seems like the question hanging over an entire fan base is: How healthy is he?

USC doesn't provide information on injuries but what we do know is that the Trojans' offense isn’t very effective when Holmes isn’t playing and it’s pretty anemic when he’s not playing at a high level.

(Read full post)

Trojans find resiliency 

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
10:53
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As the Trojans headed out of Salt Lake City with a win over the Utes on Thursday night, they did so with an extra bounce in their step. It wasn’t the prettiest of victories, but it was one that showed a lot of the same spirit and resiliency that helped turn the corner for the 2011 team.

[+] EnlargeNickell Robey
Boyd Ivey/Icon SMINickell Robey's interception return for a touchdown helped seal USC's 38-28 win over Utah.
This was a game that could have gone south quickly based upon the opening possessions. There was a lot of talk coming into the game about how the Trojans had yet to play a complete game this year, and how they were heading into a lion’s den of fan frenzy with a Utah crowd that was fired up to host USC in front of a national-television audience. On paper, the Utes were definitely the underdog, but the Trojans had seen hopes and dreams dashed on the road before with untimely conference losses. And when two quick turnovers were turned into 14 Utah points, it had all the makings of another dangerous trap game.

To make matters worse, the source of the early USC angst was a familiar one, a dominant nose tackle wreaking havoc on the Trojans' offense. The scene had played out recently in the loss to Stanford when USC center Khaled Holmes was out of action. Holmes was back for the Utah game, but Utes defensive tackle Star Lotulelei had a big impact early with his physical presence, and he played a role in creating the turnovers. There was definite concern while wondering what was going to happen for the rest of the night if Lotulelei was able to continue dominating the game.

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Postgame notebook: USC-Utah

October, 5, 2012
10/05/12
1:10
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SALT LAKE CITY -- Here are notes and quotes from No. 13 USC’s 38-28 win over Utah that won't make it into our other coverage from the game:

The Holmes-Barkley rapport

Center Khaled Holmes, the culprit on USC's two early turnovers that spotted the Utes 14 points, took every bit of available blame for his errors -- to the media and to his teammates.

He also said his connection with quarterback Matt Barkley -- the two played together in high school -- played a role in the Trojans' quick rebound. USC scored a touchdown on its ensuing drive, preventing a total collapse.

"I think that could have happened," Holmes said. "But fortunately it was not the case.

"Matt and the whole team had my back."

USC's more candid players did admit some interesting reactions to Holmes' second mistake, which was eerily similar to the first one that came just a few minutes before. He snapped the ball badly the first time, then misread the cadence on the second, which led to another bad snap because Barkley wasn't ready.

"After seeing it again, you're like, 'C'mon, man, seriously?'" receiver Robert Woods said he was thinking as he walked off the field. "Here we go again."

Woods' brief exit

Woods fell to the turf late in the first quarter when he tried to run off the field while dazed after a hit, a scary moment that turned out to be only a minor fright.

"That was funny. That was actually pretty funny," said Marqise Lee, his teammate and good friend.

Woods said he remembered most of the incident.

"I remember trying to run," he said. "But I couldn't see. And then I fell."

About an hour after the game's conclusion, he said he hadn't seen the video of it, yet, but noted it was "probably on YouTube."

Not much later, Lane Kiffin's assistant, Kyrah McCowan, tweeted a picture of Woods watching the play with tight end Xavier Grimble.

Woods said the concussion test given to him by USC's medical staff consisted of three questions: Who is the current president, what is today's date and what is 100 minus 7, minus 7, minus 7.

He passed all three, he said, and was allowed to return to the game after one missed play.

"There's no way you're gonna have Robert sit on the bench, no matter what it is," Lee said.

Morgan's return

On D.J. Morgan's eye-black during Thursday's game were two words: "Never Left."

Morgan wanted to show that he hadn't left the Trojans' offense despite missing USC's past three games after undergoing minor knee surgery to remove scar tissue from a high-school knee injury.

He said he felt as though he did that.

"It was very exciting," Morgan said. "My performance today came because of my preparation, because I prepared like I knew I was gonna play, like I was a starter."

Morgan, a redshirt sophomore, said he was still rehabbing following the knee surgery and didn't yet feel 100 percent recovered.

"Adrenaline kinda hides all that," Morgan said.

Homecoming for Martinez

USC right guard John Martinez is only the third Trojans letterman to hail from the state of Utah, and he grew up a Utes fan, attending a number of games at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

So he said Thursday night's game was "kinda a little bit personal" for him and that his teammates had asked him a bunch of questions about the atmosphere in the week leading up to the game.

He said it felt like a traditional Utah crowd amped up to another level Thursday night.

Martinez also was the player asked to help Holmes with the task of double-teaming Utah's Star Lotulelei, and he said it was intense.

"Their D-line is a friggin' monster to go against," Martinez said.

Injury report

Multiple USC players said running back Curtis McNeal suffered a concussion in the first quarter of Thursday night's game. It appeared to occur on a run play that did not count because of a holding penalty.

McNeal didn't return and did not record any statistics. Silas Redd, USC's other top running back, left the game initially with a shoe issue in the third quarter but did not return. It's not known if he suffered any sort of injury.

Defensive end J.R. Tavai did not make the trip to Utah. Only 56 scholarship players traveled for the Trojans.

Final notes: USC tied the school record for consecutive games without being shut out at 186 straight contests. ... The crowd of 46,037 was the fourth-largest in Utah school history. ... Kicker Andre Heidari missed two field goals in a game for the first time in his career Thursday. They were only the third and fourth misses of his career. ... Third-string quarterback Cody Kessler did all the holding for the first time this season. Barkley has typically filled that role this season. Kessler appeared to place the ball poorly on Heidari's second miss.

What we learned about USC at Utah

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
11:43
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SALT LAKE CITY -- It took the Utah Utes 165 seconds to score 14 points in Thursday night's game against No. 13 USC. It took them more than 56 minutes to score 14 more, as the USC Trojans' offense and defense both tightened up for a 38-28 win at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Here are five things we learned about USC in the win:

1. This team has some fight

Fourteen points in 2 minutes? USC essentially gave itself a real-life spread to fight back from in this game -- and, fittingly, the Vegas spread for this one hovered at about 14 points.

The Trojans handled it with aplomb, weathering the storm to an impressive extent and taking back the lead before halftime in a hostile environment. Coach Lane Kiffin said it was a situation that he'd be glad happened by the end of the season. That makes sense.

USC is going to face tougher teams than the Utes, for sure, but they're probably not going to face a tougher start than that all year.

Star receiver Marqise Lee said the 14-point deficit gave the Trojans "an opportunity to fully understand our team as a whole."

"Is SC going to break down or pick it back up?" he envisioned people around the country asking after that. "There you see: We pick it back up."

2. USC's defense is better than people realize

In Lane and Monte Kiffin's first season with the Trojans, the USC defense was downright awful at times. And the Trojans still had some bad moments in 2011.

But the truth is, this unit hasn't had a bad game, yet, this year. They're actually starting to become a force.

Taking away Utah's first two touchdowns that USC's D had almost nothing to do with and the fourth-quarter score against the backups, the Trojans allowed only seven points and created seven points of their own with a Nickell Robey pick-six.

A Lane Kiffin-coached team being good on defense? Yes, it's true.

Kiffin admitted after Thursday's game that his defense was playing the best it has in his 30-game tenure at USC.

3. Woods can still play

His numbers weren't fantastic, but Robert Woods was a big part of USC's offensive performance in the Trojans' win.

He and Lee were both given more room to work on Thursday night, probably because Utah saw the tape of the Cal game and saw USC's ground attack can be effective. And both guys did a lot with it, Woods pulling down six passes for 69 yards and a score and Lee flirting with 200 yards on 12 catches.

Woods had a first-half scare when he tried to deliver a block on Utah's Brian Blechen during a punt return, then stumbled to the turf while trying to run off the field.

His explanation said a lot, though.

"I just got dazed for a little bit and tried to get up, not stay down," Woods said. "For pride."

The junior receiver has a lot of that.

4. Holmes is an ideal leader

It's unusual in football to be able to correctly fault a single player for an opposing touchdown, but USC center Khaled Holmes really was directly responsible for both of Utah's early scores.

He had bad snaps on two of the Trojans' first five to give the ball to the Utes and a holding penalty mixed in there on a failed run play.

Here's the thing, though: From then on, he played great. And he took full responsibility for his mistakes afterward, apologizing to his teammates in the locker room after the game before Kiffin even had a chance to speak.

He said he made a point to forget the plays after Utah scored twice in the first three minutes.

"You have to," Holmes said. "Quarterbacks have to forget it if they throw a pick, cornerbacks have to do it if they get beat deep. Unfortunately I had two terrible plays. But I was able to get past them, and the guys never faltered with their confidence in me. And I couldn't be any more grateful for that."

Holmes didn't offer any excuses. He's had to come out of games twice in the past four weeks due to injury, but he didn't even mention that.

5. Barkley might yet have a chance at the Heisman

Based on his early-season play, experts around the country had been rapidly dropping USC's Matt Barkley on their Heisman Trophy leaderboard, and deservedly so: He hasn't really been playing as well as he did late last year.

But he had a fantastic game in Salt Lake City, completing 23 of his 30 passes for 303 yards, three touchdowns and no picks. He made only one or two bad decisions the entire game. And two drops by his receivers prevented his numbers from really looking supreme.

Sure, if the West Virginia Mountaineers's Geno Smith keeps putting up "video-game numbers" -- as Barkley called it this week -- he'll be the Heisman favorite.

But to count Barkley out now would be premature.

USC-Utah: Wounded but not out of it

October, 4, 2012
10/04/12
1:22
PM PT
USC and quarterback Matt Barkley started the season as the toasts of college football. Or the hated front-runners, depending on how you respond to the Rorschach test that the Trojans are across the nation.

But a loss at Stanford and middling numbers from Barkley have doused much of the hype and knocked them off the college football radar. National championships and Heisman Trophies are no longer associated with the program in 2012, and more than a few seem eager to stick the dreaded "overrated" label on the team and player.

[+] EnlargeMatt Barkley, Lane Kiffin
Kirby Lee/Image of Sport/US PresswireQB Matt Barkley and coach Lane Kiffin know that much is still at stake for USC.
"I'm good at blocking all that stuff out," Barkley said. "I know what's significant to us. I know what people who know football are seeing, not just the media and what they are writing. It doesn't get to me or our offense. We've just got to keep our heads down and work for every yard we get."

USC off the radar? Trojans coach Lane Kiffin isn't buying it.

"I don't think at SC you're ever off the radar," he said. "I think that shows in the ratings of games. Even when you're not No. 1, No. 2 or No. 3, all the conversations are about SC and you're always everybody's biggest game. I don't think you ever really come off the radar here."

Backing him up is Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. To him, as well as the Utes fan base, it's a big deal that No. 13 USC is coming to Salt Lake City to play inside Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday night (9 p.m. ET on ESPN).

"Without a doubt," Whittingham said. "It's been many, many years since USC was here."

Many years is right. The Trojans' previous visit was in 1917 -- a 51-0 victory.

Still, in the preseason this looked like a game with far more national juice. Most so-called pundits projected this as a likely battle of ranked, unbeaten teams, a game with significance for the Pac-12 South Division as well as the national picture. It was seen as one of just a few potential stumbling blocks for USC as it fired up its engines for a run at the national title game.

Instead, we have USC getting beaten at the line of scrimmage in 21-14 loss to the Cardinal, and Utah getting whipped every which way in a 37-7 humbling at Arizona State.

Both teams are coming off a bye week. The Trojans already had a bounce-back game in their solid 29-7 win over California. The Utes spent the extra week trying to correct the myriad issues exposed by the Sun Devils -- blocking, in particular.

"The offensive line play has been an ongoing project for us. Obviously a priority," Whittingham said. "We had plenty to work on."

The Utes must get the running game going against USC. They need running back John White to be fully healthy after an ankle injury -- he didn't look at that way at Arizona State -- because the Trojans have produced a potent pass rush this season (four sacks a game), which could make for a long night for quarterback Jon Hays if his play-action fakes aren't working.

The Trojans also have issues on the offensive line, most particularly the health of center Khaled Holmes. He's likely out of the game, which means fifth-year senior Abe Markowitz will be eyeballing Utah's 325-pound nose tackle Star Lotulelei. In last year's meeting, Holmes, probably the best center in the Pac-12, if not the nation, mostly fought Lotulelei to a stalemate. It's difficult to imagine Markowitz won't need a lot of help from his guards.

Utah's hope rests on being able to slow the Trojans' running game and get pressure on Barkley without resorting to a lot of blitzes. While the Utes pride themselves on their man-to-man coverage in the secondary, it's likely they will use a lot of the Cover 2 to help keep Trojans receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee in check. That's what Stanford did, and such schemes have kept Barkley's numbers down because opposing defenses are willing to take chances with alignments that invite Barkley to check into running plays.

"If teams are going to play Cover 2 and just send safeties over the top and double-team both outside receivers, you're going to be forced to run the ball where they can't support the run," Barkley said.

Sure, Barkley would like to go deep every other play, but, he added, "I'm not really worried about being flashy and all that if we're moving the ball."

The problem is the Trojans have been hot and cold moving the ball, through the air or on the ground. They are fifth in the Pac-12 in scoring and pass efficiency, and sixth in total offense, rushing and passing yards. They are 11th in third-down percentage.

Those numbers suggest mediocrity, not the offensive greatness most projected for Barkley and company in the preseason.

Yet, it's still early. A lot can -- and likely will -- happen over the second half of the season. Neither of these teams have permanently set a trajectory for how things will go in 2012.

An upset victory for Utah would be monumental for the program in its second year of Pac-12 play. And an impressive performance by USC could land it back on the national radar.

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2013 TEAM LEADERS

PASSINGATTCOMPYDSTD
C. Kessler361236296820
RUSHINGCARYDSAVGTD
J. Allen1357855.814
T. Madden1387035.13
RECEIVINGRECYDSAVGTD
M. Lee5779113.94
N. Agholor5691816.46
TEAMRUSHPASSTOTAL
Offense174.2218.1392.3
TEAMPFPAMARGIN
Scoring28.521.37.2