Robert Woods caught a school-record 17 passes for 177 yards and three touchdowns, and 25th-ranked USC hung on to spoil Kill's debut in a 19-17 victory Saturday that left the Trojans feeling worse than the Gophers.
Matt Barkley completed a school-record 34 passes for 304 yards, but Minnesota shut out USC in the second half of the Trojans' 14th consecutive season-opening victory. MarQueis Gray and freshman quarterback Max Shortell both led second-half scoring drives for Minnesota before USC's Torin Harris intercepted Shortell's pass near midfield with 53 seconds left.
''We could have come out in the second half and just laid an egg and got blown out, but the way we played in the second half showed that some of our kids have bought in,'' Kill said. ''We looked nervous and uncomfortable in the first half. We settled down in the second half. If we had played with that confidence and intensity in the first half, maybe it would have been a different story.''
Kill is just a few months into his tenure after leaving Northern Illinois to take over a program with just one winning season in its last five. But the Gophers' gritty response to that dramatic sideline scene at halftime suggests Kill and his staff might have more substance than style - something rarely argued about fired coach Tim Brewster.
The Gophers fell into a big halftime hole when Barkley repeatedly exploited their soft coverage on Woods, who had 11 receptions in the first half and broke Johnnie Morton's USC record of 15 catches late in the third quarter. Minnesota made halftime adjustments and largely bottled up Woods after halftime.
Minnesota stopped USC's opening drive of the second half with a 32-yard loss when a fourth-down snap sailed over Barkley's head, followed by a quick drive ending with Duane Bennett's 9-yard TD run. Shortell came off the Gophers' bench in the fourth quarter when Gray went down with leg cramps, throwing a 12-yard TD pass to Brandon Green with 8:03 to play.
Gray passed for 94 yards and rushed for 48 more in his first start at quarterback for the Gophers. Kill likely was more impressed by Shortell, who backed up his impressive camp with a 7-for-13 performance for 98 yards in the fourth quarter.
''I got a little nervous walking into the Coliseum, but once I got in there, it was time to play ball,'' Shortell said.
Minnesota came agonizingly close to a defensive stop that would have given them more time and less distance to cover on the final drive, but USC converted two long-yardage first downs before a punt left the Gophers at their 9 with 2:04 to play. Harris made up for a horrific missed tackle on Green's touchdown, leaping to snag Shortell's final pass.
Bennett rushed for 53 yards and a score for Minnesota, which hadn't visited the Coliseum since 1979 and hasn't won a game in California since 1964.
After catching passes for most of his first two seasons at Minnesota, Gray took over the Gophers' offense this year, starting his first game at quarterback since 2007 at his Indianapolis high school. He had a few decent runs and a few missed throws, going 7 for 12.
''I waited three years to be a quarterback, and to get cramps late in the third quarter and sit out most of the fourth quarter, this is going to be a hard pill for me to swallow,'' Gray said. ''It kept bothering me for a couple of plays and wouldn't leave, which is why I came out. I tried to get stretched, but it wasn't working. I went back to the locker room and got an IV for a couple minutes and came back out, but it just kept coming back.''
Barkley went 34 for 45 with eight drops, according to Kiffin. The junior completed 16 straight passes during one stretch and surpassed Todd Marinovich's 1989 record for completions in the fourth quarter, but Barkley watched the Gophers' final drive with dread alongside Woods.
''I obviously had flashbacks to last year, but this is a new year and a new defense,'' Barkley said of the Trojans, who blew several fourth-quarter leads and lost two games on field goals at the gun last season.
Woods scored on USC's opening drive, and he made a 43-yard TD catch in the second quarter with a Minnesota defensive back draped all over him. Minnesota stopped 2-point conversion attempts after both of the Trojans' first two scores, and USC kicked an extra point after Woods' 2-yard grab 49 seconds before halftime.