EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Lane Kiffin's second-ranked USC Trojans survived the heat and the humidity. They watched it rain and then pour like you don't see in L.A. They saw menacing clouds move in overhead and then spent more than an hour huddled in their locker room for a mid-game weather delay.
The Trojans dealt with a mostly empty stadium, a long disjointed afternoon turned evening, and, more than anything, a spirited Syracuse team.
They won 42-29, moving to 2-0 on the season.
Yet standing outside the Trojan locker room when it was all done, Kiffin was fighting to keep the narrative on what this was (a hard-fought road victory) and not what it wasn't (one of those Savannah State-style beat-downs where everything looks perfect.
This is college football, where style points are for some reason valued, where winning ugly isn't always celebrated and where so many teams just schedule cupcakes rather than deal with a unique challenge, like coming here to the shadow of New York City to be the Orangemen's game of the year. It all goes double when you're sitting on a national title contender like USC.
So Kiffin relayed a conversation from the summer with Tim Tebow about the pressure that comes with pursuing perfection.
"He talked about his senior year, he had already won the Heisman and they were No. 1 and all of that," Kiffin said. "They played us when we were at Tennessee and won by 10. And he said they felt like they lost."
That, more than anything, is a feeling he doesn't want for Matt Barkley, Robert Woods and the others.
"We're trying to do a really good job feeling good about winning."
So Kiffin kept feeling good about it. Yes, there is room for improvement. Yes, the defense could be better. No, this wasn't the kind of pyrotechnic display he probably would've coveted a few years back, when he might have been motivated to perform for the East Coast media and not simply realized the danger at hand.
A 13-point victory in an environment that felt like a trap would have to be enough. He wasn't going to let anyone feel like they lost.
"I think that it's just unrealistic," Kiffin said of the expectations in college football. "We have to make sure we don't fall into what everyone else is saying. Last week you move from 1 to 2 [in the national polls] after winning by 39."
This was a bizarre day of college football, like almost nothing else in the sport. Syracuse is trying to establish itself as New York's college team, so it's playing a number of big non-conference games here at Met Life, just across the Hudson from Manhattan.
Ticket sales were sluggish, the announced crowd of 39,507 was vastly inflated. Whoever did show up – maybe 30,000 – rattled around this cavernous 82,566-seat stadium. Even then there were probably more USC fans here anyway. The result was a dead atmosphere that began under heat and humidity and was soon plagued by powerful weather: heavy rains, a slick field and a 70-minute delay with players huddled in the locker room trying to stay focused.
"A game that is not easy to play," Kiffin described it. "The East Coast, two days [on the road], NFL stadium, not much attendance, lower than people thought, so there wasn't a whole lot of energy, then the delay. [There were] a lot of reasons why they could've not done well."
This is where Kiffin has matured, where he's become a better coach, less brash, less concerned with outside opinions and more focused on simply winning. Perhaps back in the day he would've obsessed about putting on a show. Instead he harkened back to his NFL days, where West Coast teams always dread East Coast games.
So the game plan was about ball control. The play-calling was mostly bland. Lots of Barkley out-passes to Woods and Marquis Lee. Lots of running the ball. Lots of trying to avoid the turnovers that give underdogs momentum and hope.
Barkley threw for six touchdowns but just 187 yards, a line as strange as the conditions. Kiffin was more concerned about controlling the clock.
"If you come into an environment like it was today, just kind of weird, and you're on the road against a team that this is their Super Bowl, they can throw everything at you," Kiffin said. "It was more critical to make sure we were getting completions and running the ball than just throwing the ball downfield, where turnovers happen or sacks that cause fumbles."
So, yes, it was a little ugly. So what, he said.
"I think that's come with coaching longer," the 37-year-old said. "I probably would've been different a few years ago. The whole day today all I was thinking about was getting to 2-0. Get back on the plane, stay as healthy as you can and move onto the next round.
"When I was an assistant I would feel like, ‘Why didn't we score on the last possession and make it 50?' And now because my emotions affect the whole team I have to remind myself that at the end of the day the No. 1 goal is to win the game and stay healthy."
So, no apologies. Instead Kiffin was pleased to see his players celebrate on the field and hear they danced up the ramp to the locker room. It was going to be a fun flight home. Lane Kiffin's season-long mantra, stemming from that Tebow admission, promised that.
"That was a really good win," he said outside that locker room. "Really good."
He wasn't concerned with anyone who thinks controlling, but not crushing, a Big East team isn't good enough.
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