LOS ANGELES (GMC) -- The five stages of grief can be found in any psychology text book, but they live in the human heart. When Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first put forth her hypothesis in the year that I was born, she was talking about how an individual copes with the death of a loved one, but when pressed, any avid sports fan will tell you that a loss in an important game approximates these same feelings. And so it is today as we look back at Stanford's loss at the hands of the USC Trojans.
The opening drive of the game gave Stanford fans a glimpse of what was to come. As I between my wife and an old college roommate in the Stanford section of the sold-out Los Angeles Coliseum, there was lots of kvetching as the Cardinal took a timeout on 3rd and six, took a false start penalty on the next snap to create 3rd and 11, then took another timeout before running the next play.
When they finally did run a play, however, it looked for a moment as if none of that would matter. Kevin Hogan surprised most people in the stadium by dropping back to pass, and Ty Montgomery simply ran past his defender. Montgomery was wide open, Hogan's ball was perfectly thrown, and the play would've gained at least forty yards -- except that Montgomery dropped the ball. Looking back, that play capped a drive that encapsulated all the problems the Cardinal would have all night long -- indecision about play calling which presumably led to the timeouts, untimely penalties, and missed opportunities.
USC took over at their own 35 and quarterback Cody Kessler immediately went to work. When Lane Kiffin was in charge back in September, he bungled several things concerning his Trojans, most notably the quarterback competition. In the battle between Kessler and Max Wittek, Kiffin refused to name a starter and gave both players time in the season opener, a move that puzzled analysts and frustrated players. When interim head coach Ed Orgeron took over, one of the first things he did was make it clear that Kessler was his man, and we saw why on Saturday night.
Kessler marched his team down the field with stunning efficiency on this drive. The idea going in was that Stanford's front seven would make things difficult for Kessler, especially if the Trojans couldn't run the ball, but USC's playcallers addressed this by giving Kessler one easy throw after another -- quick hitters to great receivers. He opened with a short pass to Nelson Agholor for nine yards, found him a few plays later for 20, and later hit Marqise Lee for 13 to give USC a 1st and goal at the one yard line. They tried running the ball once with no success, then wisely went back to what had been working -- another short pass, this time to running back Soma Vainuku out of the backfield, for the touchdown. The extra point was missed, so the Trojans led, 6-0.
Kessler was four of five for 43 yards on the drive, and running back Javorius Allen had carried the ball four times for just eight yards with the other fifteen coming on a face mask penalty on Wayne Lyons. This pattern -- efficient passing, fruitless running, and careless Stanford defensive penalties -- throughout the first half.
But the Cardinal offense returned to the field and looked to answer. After converting a 3rd and 4 with a nice pass to Jeff Trojan, Hogan absorbed a late hit which gave Stanford another fifteen yards and moved the ball into USC territory for the first time. His next pass went to Montgomery for nine yards, and on 2nd and 1 he handed the ball to Gaffney for what looked to be a fairly innocuous run into the line of scrimmage. He appeared to be stopped for a minimal gain, possibly even short of the line of scrimmage, and when I watched the replay I even noticed the line judge racing in to spot the ball. But just then Gaffney somehow broke free, bounced around the right side of the line, and suddenly found himself in the open field. He split two Trojan defenders, raced inside the ten yard line and dove from the five to complete a thirty-five yard touchdown. This kick was good, and Stanford took the lead at 7-6.
Looking to answer this score, Kessler brought his offense back out onto the field and picked up right where he had left off. He completed all four of his passes: fifteen yards to Soma, six to Agholor, seven to Lee, and fourteen to Darreus Rogers. Friends and strangers in the stands kept asking the same question: Is Cody Kessler really this good? The answer seemed clear. Any average college quarterback -- and this is probably what Kessler is -- will look great if he's operating with no pressure and throwing to NFL-caliber receivers. That's exactly what happened on these first two drives, and it would continue on the third.
After those four completions gave USC a first down at the Stanford 17, Kessler handed the ball to Allen, who gained sixteen yards, the longest USC rush of the day. He got the final yard on the next play, Marqise Lee made phenomenal catch for the two-point conversion, and the Trojans were back on top, 14-7.
Stanford's next drive was uneventful, save for 24 more rushing yards for Gaffney, but Ben Rhyne had to punt the ball back to the Trojans, who simply kept doing what they were doing. Kessler felt a bit of pressure on first down (also, Blake Leuders may or may not have been held), so he had to check down to Allen out of the backfield. Allen took the short pass and sprinted through the defense for a 41-yard gain, reminding every Stanford fan of every USC game they've ever seen.
Two plays later, Kessler reminded us of a huge difference in this game. Nelson Agholor was isolated one on one with Alex Carter, so Kessler just threw the ball up for grabs. Agholor came back to the ball, then leaped over Carter to make a spectacular grab for a 26-yard gain to the Stanford 11. The USC receivers were making plays, and the Stanford receivers weren't. More on this later.
The Trojans would eventually stall at the five, but a short field goal from Andre Heidari pushed the Trojan lead to ten at 17-7.
Both teams traded three-and-outs after that, and the Cardinal began their final drive of the half at their own 41, their best field position of the game. In Stanford's most varied drive of the game (four different receivers were targeted, and three different players ran the ball), Hogan led his team to a 1st and 10 at the USC 11. But time was running down, and those two timeouts lost on the first possession of the game came back to haunt the Cardinal. They were forced to burn their final timeout on 3rd and 9 with 25 seconds remaining.
With no other option but the pass, Ty Montgomery was still able to get free on an inside slant. Hogan pulled the trigger, but his pass was behind him and incomplete. Brent Musberger blamed Montgomery, noting that he had had a case of the drops, but this incompletion was on Hogan. If he had led him properly and hit him in stride, Montgomery would likely have scored. As it was, Stanford had to settle for the field goal to cut the lead to 17-10.
If there's one thing I know about defensive coordinator Derek Mason, it's that he excels at making half time adjustments to take away what the opposing offense has been doing, so I felt confident heading into the second half. But when the teams took the field, it looked like we were in for more of what we had seen in the game's first thirty minutes.
There was another fifteen-yard personal foul penalty on Stanford on the opening kickoff (Stanford would be flagged an uncharacteristic six times for 70 yards on the night), and Kessler's first pass of the half went to Lee for 27 yards. The Trojans were back in Stanford territory before most fans were back from the restrooms. But the defense stiffened from there, eventually forcing a punt and turning the ball back over to the offense at the Stanford 8.
Stanford's first offensive possession of the second half would be its best of the night. There was one incompletion late, but aside from that it was a flawless drive. Gaffney for five yards, Hogan to Michael Rector for 16, Gaffney for 22, Hogan to Montgomery for 6, Kelsey Young for 10, Gaffney for 4, Hogan to Cajuste for 19, the incomplete pass to Rector, and finally two yards from Montgomery. It wasn't until the final play of the drive that Hogan even faced a third down, when he needed eight yards from the USC 18. It was an obvious passing situation, but when Hogan came to line of scrimmage he checked out of what was probably a pass and instead handed the ball to Gaffney. Gaffney exploded through a gaping hole in the line and ran untouched for the 18-yard touchdown. Stanford had tied the game at 17, and all appeared to be well.
But it got even better only moments later. After gaining eleven yards and a first down on a pass to Agholor, Kessler's next two passes fell incomplete, bringing up 3rd and 10 from the USC 32. Kessler dropped back under heavy pressure and was finally sacked by Trent Murphy (who had another stellar game, by the way). Kessler fumbled, Shayne Skov recovered, and Stanford was in business at the USC 21.
After an ill-fated screen to Montgomery lost four yards, Anthony Wilkerson picked up eleven to bring up 3rd and 3. I think third down plays of that distance are my least favorite with this offense. It's a bit too long to run for, though I think they should run a bit more often in these situations, and because Hogan hasn't done much with the downfield passing game, defenses can simply play to the first down marker, packing everything in tight.
The play called on this 3rd and 3 seemed to address that concern. With the formation indicating a power run to the right, Hogan faked the handoff and rolled out to his left on a bootleg. The first option is probably for Hogan to run for the first down, but the defense wasn't fooled, and the run was eliminated. Still, the roll out had bought him enough space and time to survey the field, and he found Montgomery crossing the end zone from right to left. Even though there were two defenders running with Montgomery, Hogan's pass was perfect and hit the receiver right in his hands, but Montgomery dropped it. It would've been a great catch, but it's a catch that a great receiver (like Marqise Lee or Nelson Agholor) would've made. (In fairness to Montgomery, the more I watch the play, the more I think that even if he had caught the ball, he might not have landed in bounds.)
The failure to score a touchdown was disappointing, but when Conrad Ukropina (kicking in place of the still-injured Jordan Williamson) had his kick blocked, the effect was devastating. As the Trojan players celebrated and 80,000 Trojan fans exploded, the Stanford sideline was visibly deflated. It was a huge, huge opportunity lost.
Somehow the defense did what it always does, what it has done for the past two years -- it rose up and stood strong when it was needed most. USC gained 21 yards on its next possession and 18 on the one after that, but both ended in punts.
Stanford's first possession of the fourth quarter started 85 yards away from the USC goal line, and it looked for all the world as if it would win the game and propel the team to Big Game, the Pac-12 Championship game, and the 100th Rose Bowl. Gaffney started with a nice eleven-yard gain, and two plays later Hogan hit Montgomery for twelve more yards to move the ball out to the Stanford 38.
I always like when Montgomery lines up in the backfield, and on the next play Hogan lined up in the shotgun with Montgomery beside him. They ran a variation of the read option, and this time Hogan read it right. Montgomery had already run a few sweeps in the game, so when the defense followed Montgomery's initial movement to the left, Hogan kept the ball and darted up the middle for a nine-yard gain. (Again, we should see more of Hogan on the read option for two reasons: he seems to be getting better at making that read, and he seems not to be getting better at passing from the pocket. It would be a good idea to play to his strength rather than his weakness.)
Did I say weakness? On the very next play Hogan sat back in the pocket and fired a strike to Rector, who made a nifty move and ended up with a 28-yard gain to the USC 25. Next it was time for Gaffney again, and he rumbled 19 yards to bring the Cardinal six yards from victory. (Gaffney, by the way, had another phenomenal game. He carried the ball 24 times for 158 yards, an average of 6.6 yards per carry. In his last four games he has totalled 631 yards and 8 touchdowns.)
But knowing all this, and knowing that the USC defense was reeling, David Shaw decided to get cute. (We know it was David Shaw, because he has repeatedly said that he calls the play in the red zone.) Before the ball was even spotted for first down at the six, I was saying to anyone who would listen, "Please, just run the ball four times here. Please." Unfortunately, David Shaw was on the sideline and not in the stands; he didn't listen.
The first play was the wildcat, with Gaffney alone in the backfield. I've gone back and forth in my feelings about the wildcat, from loving it to hating it to simply tolerating it, but recently I've arrived at a more definitive opinion. When they run the wildcat with some type of a wrinkle, like a jet sweep from Young or Montgomery, or with a straight read option with another ball carrier in the backfield with Gaffney, I think it's as good as any other running play. The defense has to honor multiple possibilities. But when Gaffney is alone in the backfield and there is no motion to protect him, he sits at the mercy of the defense.
Predictably, this first down play did not work. But worse than that, Gaffney was pulled down for a four-yard loss. When Gaffney runs the ball in a standard set, he almost never loses yardage; he has more touchdowns than negative plays. So now instead of 2nd and goal from the six or better, the ball was all the way back on the ten, which changed everything. The next play was a poorly executed screen to Gaffney that fell incomplete and likely wouldn't have amounted to anything had it been caught, and it was suddenly 3rd and goal from the ten.
The touchdown suddenly seemed unlikely, but a run up the middle -- the safe play -- would've set up a field goal at worst, and it wouldn't have been a huge surprise if Gaffney had broken through and scored. Instead, Shaw called for a pass.
What we'll never know is how much Shaw's faith -- or lack of faith -- in Ukropina might've played into his decision. If he was thinking about his second-string kicker's failed attempt in the third quarter and thought they had a better chance to score a touchdown than a field goal, perhaps this decision makes sense. At any rate, Hogan dropped back to throw, locked his eyes on Montgomery like a seventeen-year old boy on his prom date, and made his pass. Montgomery was running a slant from the right slot, and he easily beat his man to the inside, but Hogan was so focused on Montgomery that he never appeared to see linebacker Dion Bailey, who casually intercepted the ball. (Even if Bailey hadn't been there, Montgomery never would've had a shot to make the catch; the throw was that bad. A properly thrown ball, or a ball thrown a split second later, might've resulted in a Stanford touchdown.)
Once again, the Stanford defense forced one punt and then another on USC's next possession, and Stanford eventually got the ball back at their own 32 with 3:40 to play. It was fairly clear that this would be Cardinal's final possession of regulation, so even when Hogan completed an eight-yard pass to Ol' Man Jordan Pratt, it was still disturbing. The Cardinal had run for 210 yards on the night, but for some reason, when the game was hanging in the balance, they would run no more.
On 2nd and 1, instead of simply running for the first down and getting a new set of plays, there was another pass play. Hogan felt pressure and rolled to his right. As the rush finally got to him, instead of either taking the sack or throwing the ball away, he tried to pass the ball to Montgomery in double coverage. Because this is a Pac-12 game, the officiating must be mentioned. Here's how the play unfolded. Montgomery was only able to get a hand on Hogan's ill-advised pass and ended up tipping it to Su'a Cravens who made the interception at the USC 44. There was a flag on the play, and those of us in the stands were hoping against hope for pass interference, but instead the call was for illegal touching; Mongtomery had gone out of bounds and was then the first player to touch the ball, which is against the rules. When I got home and watched the replay, however, it was clear that the officials had completely bungled the play. Montgomery hadn't simply gone out of bounds, he was blatantly shoved out of bounds by the defender. This is illegal. If the shove came before the pass was thrown, it would have been illegal contact, if it came after the pass, it would've been defensive pass interference. The official who watched the play made neither call, so instead of a Stanford first down near midfield, USC took over on their own 44 with 3:02 to play.
When Kessler threw incomplete on first down, Allen was pushed back for a loss of one, and Wayne Lyons tackled Agholor two yards short of the first down, it looked like the defense had once again done its job. Facing 4th and 2 from the Stanford 48 in a tie game with less than two minutes to play? There's no way any coach in America would keep his offense out on the field. When the punting team didn't immediately come out onto the field, I assured all around that Orgeron would simply let the play clock run down, call timeout, and then punt the ball.
He DID let the play clock run down, he DID call timeout, but then he defied all expectations by sending Kessler and company back out for fourth down. I suppose that maybe when you're an interim head coach and you have a chance to beat the fourth-ranked team in the nation in your home stadium with a sell-out homecoming crowd watching and your athletic director standing on the sidelines next to you, you might be more willing to take a risk.
It also helps when you know you have a receiver like Marqise Lee. Kessler dropped back and threw a quick slant to Lee for a thirteen-yard gain. Once again, it was a great play by a great player, and suddenly things were looking desparate for the Cardinal. Things looked even worse two plays later when Kessler found Agholor for eleven more yards to the Stanford 21, well within field goal range.
Somehow the defense found something within themselves, and they fought back. Josh Mauro wrapped up Javorious Allen for a three-yard loss, and Murphy pulled down Allen for a loss of six more yards on the next play, and suddenly the Trojans were all the way back at the 30. There was hope.
Curiously, Orgeron seemed to be satisfied with a long field goal attempt. After Kessler took a dive to his right on third down to bring the ball to the middle of the field, Andre Heidari came out to attempt a 47-yard field goal. Over the past two seasons Heidari had made only 5 of 14 attempts over 40 yards, and not even NFL kickers can be counted on to hit 47-yard field goals. But it's a funny thing about field goals. As I stood in the stands watching Heidari line up his kick, I realized that if it had been my team preparing for a kick like that, I would've worried about all those percentages that seemed to point to a miss, but as I looked at Heidari I feared the worst. He delivered. His kick split the uprights and sailed into the net behind the end zone. It would've been good from 57. There were still 25 seconds left on the clock, but the game was over. USC 20, Stanford 17.
At first I simply couldn't believe it. I wouldn't believe it. As USC players danced on the Coliseum turf and their fans cheered their first victory over Stanford since 2008, all I could think about was the Rose Bowl I wouldn't be going to. Somehow it didn't seem possible. This is denial.
And then the anger set in. As I walked out of the stadium, I wanted to stop each smiling Trojan fan and explain to them what had happened. I wanted them to know that after USC's first three drives of the game produced 17 points, the Stanford defense had dominated, never even letting the Trojans threaten until that final field goal. I wanted to shake them and point out that the Cardinal had rushed for over 200 yards while holding the Trojans to only 23. And when I thought the end of Stanford's three-year BCS bowl streak, I wanted to channel Jack Nicholson and scream that all they had done on this night was weaken a conference. Was I bitter? Without question.
But the walk through Exposition Park restored my sanity. Even though I had to endure coeds shouting "Fight On!" from their apartment windows and some shameless taunting from two teachers from my daughter's school, I also ran into a student that I hadn't seen in almost twenty years. As we embraced, he wearing his USC gear and I Stanford, the game was forgotten for a split second. He told me that he had been thinking of me during the game, remembering all the Stanford posters and stickers that I always had in my room, and couldn't believe we had run into each other.
But you didn't come here to read about any of that. Like me, you're wondering what became of the 2013 Stanford Cardinal, a team that entered the season contending for a national championship but will now be watching the Pac-12 championship game from afar. A team that once saw the Rose Bowl as a worst-case scenario, but is now making arrangements for lovely San Antonio.
If you're like every other Cardinal fan I spoke with last night, you're also wondering about the play calling and the quarterback. Even as early as halftime much of the discussion in my section revolved around Hogan and his lack of development from last year to this, as well as concerns about play selection. After the defeat, things were worse. As I made my way through the concourse afterwards I walked through the conversation of two younger fans. When one asked the other, "How did we lose this game?" I slowed for a second to put a hand on his shoulder and said calmly, "Play calling. It's the play calling." They both agreed whole-heartedly.
The last and longest conversation I had was an hour or so after the game with a like-minded alum who got in line behind me at Tito's Tacos, perhaps the best taco place in Los Angeles. (Culver City, if we're being precise.) Amidst a sea of Trojan fans, he and I talked for a while about the frustrations we shared with Shaw's red zone play calling and concerns about the future of the quarterback position.
The only good news I have to report is that all of these frustrations say more about the health of Stanford football than any possible disease. As difficult as it might be to remember, it wasn't long ago that it was Stanford fans who were rushing the field after victories over USC, and not the other way around. Stanford has become a national power, a school whose name is circled on other team's schedules. As fans, we now look at a what should be a 10-2 season as a disappointment. I invite you to hop into a time machine set for 2007 and try to explain that to yourself.
College football teams -- even elite college football teams -- do not win every game. Play calls don't always work out, and quarterbacks sometimes throw interceptions. Great programs rebound from losses like this and return stronger, they honor their great players and replace them with new recruits, they win bowl games regardless of where they are played.
And so it must be for us. Last night's loss will drop the Cardinal in the BCS standings, but it doesn't change the fact that Stanford is one of the five strongest football programs in America. The Cardinal will rise again. Count on it.
[Photo Credit: Jeff Gross/Getty Images]