If once is an aberration, twice is a trend, and three times is a pattern, what is four times? We'll talk about that important question a bit later, but for now let's focus on what happened on Saturday night.
Most analysts expected USC to beat Stanford fairly easily, but those few who gave the Cardinal a chance said that the only way they could stay in a game with the Trojans would be to get some big plays, perhaps on special teams. Ty Montgomery must've been paying attention, because he took the opening kick off, charged upfield into the wedge, then cut to his right and raced up the sidelines for sixty-two yards to the USC 33 yard line.
It was the perfect start, but a recurring problem immediately reared its ugly head when Josh Nunes wasn't able to get the first play off in time and was flagged for delay of game. Delay penalties are to be expected from time to time in an offense which asks the quarterback to receive three plays from the sideline, relay them to his team, check the defense at the line of scrimmage, and then choose the correct play before finally snapping the ball. Even last season, during Andrew Luck's senior year, it felt like we saw at least one of these flags a game, so it should be no surprise that the inexperienced Nunes has had the same problems. Still, this one was unfortunate.
Suddenly it was 1st and 15, and Nunes was out of his comfort zone. He threw incomplete on first down, completed a short pass to Stepfan Taylor for eight, then incomplete again on third down. When Jordan Williamson came in and bounced his field goal attempt off the left upright, it was a huge win for the Trojans.
When quarterback Matt Barkley came out on the next play and hit Marqise Lee for a short pass that turned into a sixteen-yard gain, things started feeling a bit sticky. That Trojan drive stalled, but Barkley dipped into his deep arsenal the next time he touched the ball. Starting at his own fifty, Barkley hit freshman Nelson Algholor on an inside slant, then watched Algholor ramble up the middle of the field for forty-nine yards to the Stanford one. Two plays later USC offensive lineman Andre Walker wrapped his arms around running back Silas Redd and literally lifted him into the end zone.
I was in the car listening to the radio at the time, and the USC radio crew explained that this was perfectly legal. They claimed the rulebook only prohibited pushing a runner forward, though they mentioned nothing about the Bush Push. Viewers watching the FOX telecast heard a more accurate explanation accompanied by a quote from the rulebook. It was an illegal play. No matter. USC 7, Stanford 0.
The Trojans looked they were hitting their stride, and there was a palpable sense of danger, but the Cardinal answered on the next series. At 2nd and 8 from his own forty, Taylor took a handoff and starting following a Ryan Hewitt block behind the left guard. But with no opening on the left side, Taylor quickly sidestepped back across to the right, darted through the line, skipped back to his left around a diving linebacker, then raced untouched to the end zone for a spectacular sixty-yard touchdown and a 7-7 tie. Perhaps things weren't as bad as they seemed.
But the Stanford offense continued to struggle through the end of the first quarter and into the second. The running game was adequate (not dominant), but the passing game was shaky at best. The Trojans, though, were only a bit better. It's hard to imagine that any team anywhere could stop Barkley and wideouts Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, the best receiving tandem in recent memory, but the Cardinal defense was at least containing them. There had been no touchdowns or huge gains from the receivers, but Stanford cornerback Terrence Brown had been flagged twice for pass interference, the second penalty giving the Trojans a 1st and 10 at the Cardinal sixteen.
The front-runner for the Heisman Trophy then dropped back to pass but felt immediate pressure up the middle from defensive tackle David Parry. Looking to avoid Parry's rush, Barkley turned back around to his left but spun directly into the onrushing helmet of linebacker Trent Murphy. The ball popped loose and was picked up by Marqise Lee, who made things interesting for a while before safety Jordan Richards tackled him for an eventual thirteen-yard loss.
Two plays later the Trojans found themselves facing a 4th and 19 at the Cardinal twenty-five. With their normal place kicker sitting at home in L.A. and nothing much to gain from a punt, the insufferably arrogant Lane Kiffin decided to go for it. Barkley hit Woods on a short crossing pattern, Woods outran everyone on the field before Terrence Brown pushed him out of bounds at the one, and Cocky Kiffin had his first down, just like he knew he would. Silas Redd scored three plays later, this time all by himself. The Trojans had a 14-7 lead with 11:14 to play in the second quarter, but they wouldn't score again.
The first half ended with a comedy of errors. Barkley and Nunes each threw two interceptions in the final eighty three seconds, including picks on three consecutive plays, but the half was over and the Cardinal had survived.
The Stanford defense took over in the second half, just as they did against San Jose State and Duke. After a three-and-out to start the half, the Trojan offense did a bit better on its next possession as they marched deep into Stanford territory. But the Cardinal defense stood strong, pushing the Trojans into a 4th and 2 at the thirteen. Kiffin sent in Alex Wood, his freshman backup kicker, to attempt the first field goal of his career. Barkley was still in the game as the holder, though, so it was only mildly surprising when he stood up out of his crouch and pushed Wood aside.
Most teams push their deception further than the Trojans do. They want the defense to think a kick is coming until the absolute last second. USC almost never goes that route. Instead they rely on the fact the defense has sent out a field goal blocking unit, so even if they know a standard play is coming, it won't matter because they won't have the right personnel on the field to defend it.
So when Barkley dropped back to pass and looked towards the right corner of the end zone, he didn't see Terrence Brown, Wayne Lyons, Barry Browning, Ed Reynolds, or any of the usual Cardinal defensive backs. Instead it was sophomore Ronnie Harris, a nickelback who rarely, if ever, sees the field. Barkley's pass was actually caught by Soma Vainuku, but Harris was right there with him and ripped the ball out of Vainuku's arms as the two hit the turf together. It was exactly midway through the third quarter, and the Trojans wouldn't end a drive on the Stanford side of the field again.
After the Cardinal defense threw down another three-and-out a few minutes later, the Stanford offense took possession at the USC 48 looking to tie the score. After softening up the defense with two five-yard runs from Taylor, Nunes looked downfield and hit Ertz with a beautiful pass for a twenty-four-yard gain to the eighteen. After a Stanford penalty pushed the ball back to the 23 (the Cardinal was flagged an uncomfortable eight times for 68 yards), Nunes went to the air again, flipping a short screen to Taylor.
Taylor would finish the night with 153 yards rushing, in the process jumping over 3,000 yards in his Stanford career, but this short screen play might've been his best moment of the night. He took the pass behind the line of scrimmage, then stuttered left and right, hopped over a few ankle tackles, and finally bulled his way into the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.
If there was a time for Matt Barkley to resume his Heisman campaign, this was certainly it. Instead the Stanford defense flexed its muscles again and came up with yet another three-and-out, this one featuring a strong solo tackle by Wayne Lyons on Robert Woods and a spine-tingling hit by Jordan Richards to dislodge a potential first-down catch by tight end Randall Telfer.
The Cardinal's subsequent drive was notable for two reasons. First and foremost, it ended with a touchdown and a 21-14 lead, but second -- and this is equally important -- it might've looked the same if the quarterback had been wearing number 12 instead of number 6. Seriously.
Starting seventy-nine yards away from the goal line, Nunes was terribly efficient on this possession. Yes, he badly underthrew a wideopen Zach Ertz on 2nd and 10 from midfield, but he made up for it on the very next play. Facing a critical 3rd and 10, Nunes was forced out of the pocket and had to scramble to his right, hoping to get the first down himself. There was plenty of open grass in front of him, but the defense collapsed on him quickly, and Nunes was quickly face to face with three Trojan defenders, five yards short of his first down. Nunes doesn't have the running ability of Andrew Luck, but he gave the defenders a quick shake to the right, then sprinted to the left past all three of them for the first down. As his teammates rushed to him to celebrate, Nunes simply pushed them out of the way so he could see the sideline and get the next play call.
How surprising was this? Here's how Shaw responded in his postgame presser: "Shocking, is what it was. Shocking. I would say that if he was sitting right next to me. He's not a runner, but you can't measure heart. It was heart, it was toughness. He broke tackle after tackle. It was just the desire to make plays, the desire to hep his teammates."
Two plays later he hit Ertz with a bullet (well, not quite a bullet) at the fifteen-yard line. Ertz lunged for the end zone and scored to give Stanford its first lead of the game at 21-14. Bedlam in my house. Bedlam.
There was still four and a half minutes to play, but it didn't really matter, did it? Barkley returned to the field, but he didn't bring any confidence with him. For the first time in years, I wasn't at all worried about the USC offense. And then a strange thing happened. With all those great numbers on Barkley's resume, with all those great weapons, the Trojans handed the ball to Curtis McNeal for two yards on first down, then to Silas Redd for one yard on second. Facing 3rd and 7, Barkley finally looked to Marqise Lee, but his throw was behind him, and the Trojans had to punt. Again.
The Stanford offense didn't need to score again, but they certainly needed to burn some clock. The biggest play of this next drive came with the Cardinal facing a short 3rd and 1 from their own forty with six minutes to play. Pep Hamilton reached deep into his bag of tricks, sending in secret weapon Kelsey Young. We heard so much about Young's potential during the off-season that it's been a bit disappointing that he hadn't made much of an impact thus far. That would change right here.
With everyone bunched tight at the line, Nunes faked the handoff to Hewitt at the upback, then spun around and flipped the ball out wide to Young. Young is the second-fastest player on the Stanford squad, so he got to the edge easily and gained eleven yards for the first down. It was a daring play, but also an obvious one, as Hamilton took advantage of the defense's aggressive desperation. It was so easy, in fact, that it didn't matter that the Cardinal had only ten men on the field.
The drive eventually stalled, but not until the offense had eaten up 48 yards and 5:56 of clock time. Barkley got the ball back on his own eleven with 2:44 to play. The clock wouldn't be a factor, but the Stanford defense certainly would. Blitzing Barkley mercilessly, the defense stood strong. The running game had long since been eliminated from the Trojan repertoire, and that was by design. Shaw explained afterwards. "First and foremost, Derek Mason and the defensive staff were phenomonal. Our front seven did a great job against the run. We tried to make them one dimensional, make them throw the ball -- which is crazy, looking at that quarterback and those receivers -- but we knew if we played smart, sound football, kept those guys in front of us, and rallied and made tackles..."
They were right. The Trojans would eventually push into Stanford territory for one play, but they'd quickly retreat like the tide, pushed backwards by two penalities and two sacks. Barkley's night, his last chance at beating Stanford, his dreams of winning a national championship, and perhaps his hopes of leaving USC as the greatest Trojan ever all ended when his desperation pass on 4th and 39 fluttered harmlessly out of bounds.
Not many expected this outcome, but there are a few reasons why this shouldn't be surprising. First, this was the first game that the Cardinal was playing with all its parts. People who wondered about the offensive line either forgot or didn't understand that it was foolish to assume there would be no improvement. Also, it should be noted that the line will only continue to improve. Freshman Andrus Peat, still not completely healthy, spent a lot of time on the field last night, and not just when extra linemen were needed. His cast is expected to come off this week, and it won't be long before claims the left tackle spot for his own.
Going into the game, most expected Woods and Lee to run wild through the Stanford secondary, but that didn't happen. Barkley was limited to just 20 for 41 for 259 yards and two interceptions, and only 143 of those yards went to Woods and Lee. Much of that credit has to go to the resurgent defensive backs. Wayne Lyons played what could've been the best game of his short career, Ed Reynolds continued his big-hitting ways, and Jordan Richards had another nice game. The talent and athleticism of this unit have never been questioned, but after passing this test, they'll now have the confidence to contend with any offense in the nation.
The front seven was also key to this equation. Not only did they remove the run from the USC playbook (Trojan running backs carried the ball 22 times for just 60 yards), they overwhelmed the USC offensive line and completely disrupted the passing game. Redshirt freshman Cyrus Hobbi was starting at center in place of the injured Khaled Holmes. Holmes is probably the top center in the nation, and his loss was felt severely. Defensive coordinator Derek Mason showed no mercy, sending his blitzers through the center of the line or running stunts on the defensive line, bringing a linebacker with a full head of steam right onto Hobbi's hat. Stanford defenders have been running the hashtag #partyinthebackfield on Twitter since early August, and it all came to fruition on Saturday night. Terrence Brown, Chase Thomas, Ben Gardner, Shayne Skov, Jordan Richards, Trent Murphy, David Parry, Usua Amanam, A.J. Tarpley, and Josh Mauro combined for ten tackles for loss. That's quite a party.
This loss also serves as something of a referendum for USC. Even ranked as highly as they were coming into this game, this never looked like a team that could win the fourteen games it would take to lift the crystal trophy in the end. Saturday night showed that even with all their talent, their roster lacks depth, and the Cardinal exposed that. Oregon -- and others, possibly -- should do the same.
But the story here has to focus on David Shaw, Josh Nunes, and the #9 Stanford Cardinal. With so many around them doubting them, they beat the USC Trojans for the fourth season in a row and annonced to a nation that they will not be going away any time soon.
[Photo Credit: Marcio José Sánchez/AP Photo]