MINNEAPOLIS – Hit by scholarship penalties and knowing there will be no postseason bowl appearances for the next two years, USC isn't looking all that much like USC these days.
Lane Kiffin's group bears little resemblance to the bunch that won titles and scared opponents. Except, of course, where it matters most — the record.
It took Robert Woods returning a kick 97 yards for a touchdown to jumpstart USC's sluggish offense Saturday as the 18th-ranked Trojans pulled away for a 32-21 victory over Minnesota on Saturday.
The Trojans (3-0) have struggled with lower-tier competition in the first three weeks of the season and fought through the distractions of the on-going Reggie Bush saga, but still have found a way emerge undefeated heading into Pac-10 play.
"That is the goal, always, to win every game we play," Kiffin said.
Allen Bradford rushed for 131 yards and a touchdown on 12 carries as the Trojans returned to a power running game with quarterback Matt Barkley struggling.
Barkley threw for 192 yards and two touchdowns. But he also threw his first two interceptions of the year.
"We're excited to be 3-0, but we obviously realize we have a long, long way to go and a lot of stuff to work on," Kiffin said.
USC's defense took a step in the right direction, holding Minnesota to 83 yards rushing. Duane Bennett was held to 8 yards on seven carries after averaging 145.5 yards in the first two weeks.
Adam Weber had a tough day for the Golden Gophers (1-2). He was just 15 of 29 for 224 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"Losing," Weber said, "is getting old."
USC trailed 14-13 with under six minutes to go in the third when Woods came through with his big return. The Trojans scored 19 straight points before a Minnesota garbage-time touchdown.
"It was a huge momentum boost," Barkley said of Woods' big play. "Everyone on our sidelines was going crazy. It got everyone in the game."
The disjointed performance against a team that lost at home to FCS South Dakota last week likely will do little to quell the uneasiness for Trojans fans back home. Sanctions or no sanctions, much is expected of USC every season, and this year is no different.
Kiffin, who graduated from Bloomington Jefferson High School in suburban Minneapolis and interviewed for the Gophers job in 2007, took over the troubled program this year after Pete Carroll bolted to the Seattle Seahawks. The NCAA levied heavy sanctions in Carroll's wake stemming from star running back Reggie Bush's time with the Trojans.
Now USC has a young team that won a 17-14 squeaker at home over Virginia last week and has committed 31 penalties in three games.
It was more of the same early against Minnesota, with the Trojans committing five penalties in the first half, including one that led to DeLeon Eskridge's 1-yard TD run that gave Minnesota a 7-0 lead.
Kiffin also made several curious strategic decisions. He went for the 2-point conversion three times, failing on all, and didn't show much confidence in his offense at the end of the first half with some conservative play-calling.
"How does a guy like this end up with two jobs with historic football teams like Tennessee and USC?" former Tennessee coach and CBS analyst Phillip Fulmer said on the network's halftime show.
Kiffin defended the 2-point calls, saying, "There are certain looks on our 2-point conversions where we're going to go for it. They're not all going to work, but we'd like to think that when we make those decisions, the percentages are in our favor."
Minnesota coach Tim Brewster has plenty of skeptics himself three games into his fourth year on the job. The loss last week against the Coyotes had many fans calling for his ouster and he vowed his team would be ready for the Trojans.
Weber threw a 31-yard TD pass to Da'Jon McKnight that gave the Gophers a 14-13 lead, and Minnesota had some hope.
That lasted all of 8 seconds.
Woods took the ensuing kickoff and darted through a gigantic hole on the left side and then outran kicker Eric Ellestad to the end zone for a 19-13 lead.
"Obviously, the most critical play of the game was we scored a touchdown, we've got this place really on fire and we give up a kickoff return," Brewster said.
The big play injected some life into the Trojan offense.
Barkley hit David Ausberry for a 21-yard touchdown and Bradford put the game on ice with a 56-yard run midway through the final period — the third Trojans TD of at least 50 yards. Ronald Johnson had a 53-yard TD catch in the second quarter.
Weber threw a 22-yard touchdown to MarQueis Gray with 11 seconds to play. Gray had four catches for 98 yards.
"I thought the execution of the plan and the patience with the plan really gave us a chance," Brewster said. "That's all we were looking for against Southern Cal; a chance to win in the fourth quarter. We had a chance."