• Stanford's offense outgained USC's by more than 100 yards.
• Stanford ran more plays than USC, 68 to 59.
• Kevin Hogan threw for 150 yards more than USC's Cody Kessler.
• Every Stanford possession reached at least the USC 32.
Certain victory for the Cardinal, right? Somehow it didn't work out that way.
Stanford's opening drive of the game was intially promising, but looking back it now stands as something of a microcosm of the entire game. After a nice return from Ty Montgomery out to the 31, Stanford's first play from scrimmage -- the first one -- was whistled dead before it started after a false start by offensive lineman Johnny Caspers. But that penalty looked like nothing more than early jitters when the offense righted itself and marched down to the USC 21 without much resistance from the Trojan defense. On 2nd and 9, Montgomery lined up in the wildcat, took the direct snap, and ran all the way down the USC 13, earning an apparent Stanford first down. But Andrus Peat, the most experienced of Stanford's five linemen, was called for holding, pushing the ball back to the Trojan 30. (This was the line's third holding call of the season, matching the total from all of 2013.)
On the next play, Caspers got involved again, this time with a well-deserved personal foul penalty for diving from behind at the legs of a defender. Instead of that potential first down at the Trojan 13, the Cardinal had 2nd and 32 all the way back at the 44. A twelve-yard run from Remound Wright put the team back into field goal range, but Jordan Williamson's attempt from forty-nine yards out spun to the left after being brushed by the thumb of a USC defender.
The USC offense took over at the 32 and picked up right where it had left off last week, following up its dominant performance against Fresno State by no-huddling down the field on the back of tailback Buck Allen, who carried six times for 38 yards on the drive. Justin Davis finished it off with a one-yard touchdown plunge, and the Trojans led 7-0.
Hogan and his offense started their next possession at the 35, and once again a promising drive yielded nothing but frustration. After they moved the ball fairly easily to the USC 17, Montgomery lined up in the wildcat again on first down. Shuler's snap sailed over his head, however, and when the defense tracked Montgomery down, he had lost 16 yards all the way back to the Trojan 33. Instead of looking to pick up five or ten yards to help out his field goal kicker, Hogan took a shot into the end zone. When Hogan's pass to Michael Rector fell incomplete, Coach David Shaw decided against a 46-yard field goal attempt and sent Ben Rhyne out to punt instead. His kick sailed into the end zone, good for a nine-yard net after the ball was placed at the 20. It wasn't necessarily the worst play call, but it was certainly the worst result.
If there was concern after USC's opening touchdown drive, it was muted a bit by the recent history of the Stanford defense. It hasn't been uncommon for teams to have early success against the Cardinal before adjustments are made, and there was hope that we'd see something like that here. (USC, you'll remember, scored touchdowns on its first two drives in 2013, but never found the end zone again.)
In Lance Anderson's first test as the new defensive coordinator, he passed with flying colors. His defense came up with a three and out on this drive, and they were dominant for the rest of the afternoon, turning in an effort good enough to win almost every week.
Perhaps fueled by the momentum of that defensive stop, the offense came out and evened the score. On a play similar to Christian McCaffrey's touchdown last week, Hogan found tailback Remound Wright on a short route over the middle for a 22-yard gain, and the Cardinal was off and running. He would later hit Rector (who had probably the best game of his young career) for nine yards and young tight end Austin Hooper for 21 to push the ball deep into Trojan territory.
(Please allow me to digress for just a moment to discuss a seemingly inconsequential play Stanford ran on 2nd and 3 from the USC 15. Montgomery lined up in the wildcat with Hogan split out wide. Nothing in the Stanford playbook has been debated as much as the wildcat, and it seems the vast majority of fans are deadset against it. I'm not opposed to the wildcat, as long as it's run with some sort of deception, like this one. Kelsey Young lined up wide to the left and came in motion through the backfield just as Montgomery took the snap. Montgomery handed the ball to Young, who was already near top speed and was able to sprint around the right corner for a seven-yard gain. Running plays that gain seven yards are always good, and those plays should remain in the playbook, but I'd like to see the naked wildcat removed. When there's some type of motion or misdirection, with a player like Young or McCaffrey racing across the line, there's at least some type of deception. The defense can't know whether they'll be filling the middle against a large power back (because that's surely what Montgomery is at 6'2" and 220) or trying to corral one of the more dynamic players on the Stanford roster in Young or McCaffrey. When it's just Montgomery on an island (naked) taking a direct snap and plunging into the line, there is no advantage, so let's strike that play, okay?)
Okay, back to the game. Even within this successful drive, there was near disaster. Hogan fumbled the snap on 2nd and goal but was able to fall on the ball, and Patrick Skov took the handoff on third down and bulled his way into the end zone to tie the game at seven.
At the time, it seemed like the sloppiest game Stanford had played in quite some time, but it would get worse. After the defense used sacks on consecutive plays to force another USC punt, Hogan and his heroes took over at their own 20. Barry Sanders started this drive at tailback and carried on the first two plays for seven yards, but Stanford's best option all day long was the pass, especially over the middle. Hogan completed five of his next six passes, hitting Montgomery for 8 yards, Hooper for 9, Devon Cajuste for 21, tight end Eric Cotton for 19, and Montgomery again for 8 to bring the ball down the Trojan 8.
This is where things got weird again. After a one-yard gain from Wright, the Cardinal faced 3rd and 1 from the USC 7. What followed was perhaps the most perplexing sequence in the game. The Cardinal took a timeout to stop the clock with 19 seconds left in the half, then inexiplicably came back onto the field with twelve players. Out of a timeout. Shaw rushed to call a timeout, but it wouldn't have mattered. All twelve players were in the huddle -- a rules violation in itself -- and all twelve went to the line of scrimmage.
Instead of 3rd and 1, it was now 3rd and 6. Hogan broke the huddle for the next play with just over 20 seconds left on the play clock, surveyed the defense for a moment before starting to bark out signals at 12, then appeared to start changing the play with 9 seconds on the clock. He settled in for the snap with just three seconds to spare, but it wasn't enough time. We'll never know what happened there, but Shuler appeared to be making protection calls related to whatever play Hogan had checked into, as his head was swivelling back and forth while Hogan waited for the snap that never game. Whistles blew, flags flew, and 3rd and 1 had become 3rd and 11. Stanford will always have delay of game penalties. It's the price you pay for running an offense that asks the quarterback to make so many changes at the line of scrimmage. I think that risk is far outweighed by the rewards of being in the right play more often, this was an unfortunate time for that issue to pop up.
Stanford finally ran a play, a near-interception from Hogan, and Williamson nailed a 33-yard field goal for a 10-7 halftime lead, but it was still an embarrassment.
The second couldn't have opened up better for the Cardinal. The defense held strong for another three-and-out, forcing the Trojans to punt from their own 25. Montgomery took the punt and showed why in just two games he has become my favorite punt returner in the history of punt returning. He field the ball at the 26, took advantage of a nice block from McCaffrey that erased two Trojan tacklers, stepped around another defender, then began loping out into open space on the left side of the field. I'm not sure how he does it, but somehow Montgomery can run at what looks like three-quarter speed and still be the fastest person on the field. Imagine a high school senior playing touch football at his little brother's birthday party. He doesn't want to embarrass anyone, but he certainly doesn't want to be caught either, so he cruises in third gear, impressing his parents with his restraint and his girlfriend with his easy athleticism. That's the way it is with my guy Ty, and I think I'm falling in love with him.
Montgomery eventually went out of bounds at the USC 30 after a 44-yard gain, and Stanford was in business. Kelsey Young took the handoff on first down and bounced out to the right for a 14-yard gain, and things looked even better. The drive stalled from there, however, and the Cardinal was forced to send Williamson in for a chip shot 26-yard field goal attempt -- which missed, wide right all the way.
No cause for concern just yet. The defense came out and did what they do, throwing down another three-and-out and delivering the ball back to the offense at the Stanford 36. Hogan came out throwing again, hitting Hooper for 26 yards on the first play (isn't it nice to have tight ends back in the offense?) and Montgomery for 12 on the next. A few plays later he converted a critical 3rd and 4 with a nice eight-yard gain out of the read option, giving the Cardinal a first down at the Trojan 12.
After a seven-yard completion to Montgomery left Stanford at 4th and 1 from the 3, Shaw chose to leave his offense out on the field to go for the first down. It seemed like the right call at the time, and it still feels like the right call now, but it didn't work. Stanford brought the jumbo package, with six offensive linemen and two tight ends across the line and two fullbacks in the backfield with Hogan, a true power look. The give was to fullback Daniel Marx, a true freshman who hadn't yet touched the ball in a college game. I suppose you could argue that there are several other players on the roster who might've been more suited to get the ball in that situation (Remound Wright, Lee Ward, Patrick Skov, Ricky Seale, or even Montgomery), but even with one of those more qualified backs carrying the ball, the result might've been the same. The Trojan defense overwhelmed the left side of the offensive line, and the play was stuffed. The officials did Stanford the courtesy of bringing out the sticks to measure, but the ball turned over to USC, and another Stanford opportunity was lost.
Perhaps predictably, the Trojans set off on their longest drive of the game, using a fifty-yard run by Buck Allen to help them move the ball all the way down to the Stanford 7. But faced with 4th and 1 (almost 2), USC coach Steve Sarkisian sent out his field goal kicker, Andre Heidari, who punched in the 25-yarder to tie the game at ten.
Again, just when you thought this game couldn't get any stranger, it produced one of the strangest sequences in recent college football history. Seriously. USC was flagged for a delay of game penalty following Heidari's field goal, and Sarkisian's vociferous argument of that call earned him a 15-yard flag for unsportsmanlike conduct, pushing the Trojans all the way back to their own 15 for the kickoff. Montgomery fielded the kick at his 22 and coasted 31 yards before being pushed out of bounds at the USC 47 -- and then one of USC's best defenders, linebacker Hayes Pullard, hit Montgomery late and targetted him with his helmet as well, earning an ejection.
(A few minutes later, cameras would catch USC athletic director Pat Haden sprinting down onto the field to continue Sarkisian's argument. At one point he became so emotional that he had to be pulled back from the official. Haden would later explain that he had received a text message from a staff member asking him to come down out of the press box, so naturally he complied. "It's been a frustrating quarter for us with penalties," he explained. Stay classy, Trojans. Stay classy.)
Before that carnival, the Cardinal had a first down at the USC 32 and the Trojans seemed ready to disintegrate. Surely their disadvantage in time of possession (27:12 to 17:48 through three quarters), the loss of one of their defensive leaders, and the apparent insanity of their head coach and athletic director would be too much for their players to bear. Surely the Cardinal would take advantage of this disarray, pound the ball into the end zone, and finally take this game by the throat. Right?
Wrong. Hogan looked to hand the ball off to Remound Wright on first down, but the two of them botched the exchange and the ball hit the turf. When USC's Delvon Simmons recovered the ball, I had my first truly negative thought of the day. Stanford had moved the ball with ease -- all day long -- but these missed opportunities were mounting to the point that they must've been affecting the psyche of the entire team. Just as the Trojans were energized as the defense raced off the field, the Stanford offense was demoralized. Again.
The Trojans used this new life to string together a few first downs and drive down to the Stanford 35 where they faced a 4th and 5. Opting against a 52-yard field goal, Sarkisian kept Kessler out on the field, but heavy pressure from linebacker Blake Martínez forced an incompletion and the Cardinal defense had held strong. Again.
Once again the Stanford offense proved unstoppable between the twenties as they ran and passed their way into USC territory, arriving at 3rd and 4 at the 23 yard line. Hogan dropped back to pass, looked to his left, and found tight end Austin Hooper, who was inexplicably completely uncovered near the goal line. Hooper cradled Hogan's pass and fell into the end zone for the touchdown and an apparent 16-10 Stanford lead. The word "relief" doesn't even begin to describe the feeling that washed over me, but then there was confusion. The camera cut from Hooper to a tight shot of Hogan's face, and I coudn't understand why he looked so stoic, why he wasn't celebrating, and suddenly I knew.
Stanford had been called for an illegal chop block, negating the touchdown and pushing the ball back 15 yards. A chop block is essentially when two players use high and low contact to block the same opposing player. In this case the offending players were guard Josh Garnett and running back Remound Wright, and while at first glance it didn't look like a textbook case of chop blocking because Garnett's high block came after Wright's low block, the rulebook is fairly clear:
ARTICLE 3. A chop block is a high-low or low-high combination block by any two players against an opponent (not the ball carrier) anywhere on the field, with or without a delay between blocks; the “low” component is at the opponent’s thigh or below. (Emphasis added.)
(FR-28, 2013 and 2014 NCAA Rules and Interpretations.)
As painful as it was to see that touchdown taken off the board, it was almost certainly the correct call. For his part, Shaw said afterwards that if it's close, the officials have to call it in the interest of player safety.
So instead of preparing for an extra point and a seven-point lead, the Cardinal offense faced 3rd and 19 from the 38. Hogan got a small bite of that back with a six-yard pass to Montgomery, but on fourth down from the USC 32, Shaw passed on what would've been a 49-yard field goal attempt, perhaps betraying a loss of confidence in his kicker. Ben Rhyne's punt was effective, however, and USC started its final drive at their own 7 yard line with seven minutes to play.
The Trojan drive wasn't anything special -- some hard running by Buck Allen, a big third down catch and run by Nelson Algholor -- but it was good enough. When James Vaughters stoned tailback Justin Davis on third down to bring up 4th and 5 at the Stanford 35, the Trojans arrived at a decision point. Sarkisian called a timeout to think things over and finally sent his offense back on the field. It felt for all the world like that fateful 4th and 7 the Trojans converted en route to their game-winning field goal in last year's game, but this time Sarkisian called time out again and sent out the field goal unit.
It felt like a win for Stanford. After all, how can you really expect any kicker -- college or NFL -- to make a 53-yard field goal? The best NFL kickers make six or seven such kicks in a season, and for college kickers anything over forty yards is an adventure. Could Heidari really break Cardinal hearts for a second year in a row?
He could. His kick was good the second it left his foot, and probably would've been good from at least another five yards out. USC 13, Stanford 10.
Even so, there was still hope. With 2:30 to play and two timeouts in his pocket, Hogan would certainly have enough time to mount a game-tying or game-winning drive. Showing a veteran's poise, Hogan completed five consecutive passes (one each to Hooper and Rector, three to Montgomery) before taking his first timeout at 2nd and 3 at the USC 22 with 51 seconds remaining. He took a sack on second down for three-yard loss, but that wasn't the end of the world. What happened next was.
Stanford has a tendency to pull its guards on play action pass plays, an extra wrinkle to sell the run even more. That's what they did on this play, with Josh Garnett vacating his spot on the left side of the line. The problem was that USC brought a blitz from that left side, and J.R. Tavai came free and leveled Hogan just as he started his throwing motion. The ball popped loose, the Trojans recovered, and the game was over.
Without question, this is one of the most frustrating losses in the Harbaugh/Shaw era, and it wasn't surprising to hear some of the more rebellious voices in the fan base calling for change, with some even making the ridiculous argument that Shaw should be fired.
But here's the thing. Sometimes teams lose games that they should win. Sometimes great teams even lose games they should win. But here are the facts. The Stanford defense played superbly, essentially shutting down the vaunted USC offense after that opening touchdown drive. The Stanford offense consistently worked its way through the Trojan defense, showcasing a passing game that's better than anything we've seen since Andrew Luck's departure. Ty Montgomery continues to be one of the most dominant players in the nation, wide receiver Michael Rector seems to have developed into more than just a fly route runner, and the tight ends are once again an integral part of the offense.
The problem, of course, lies in the red zone. David Shaw took full blame afterwards, saying, "The problem in the red zone is me." I'm not sure it's that simple. Sure, there are play calling issues, but at least some of that comes from an apparent lack of confidence in Williamson. Surely Shaw would've chosen to try at least one of those long field goals otherwise. Also, don't forget the penalties which crippled two different drives.
There were a whole host of problems on those six red zone possessions, a comedy of errors so diverse with blame that can be cast with such a wide net that I can't imagine we could ever see such a perfect storm of Keystone Koppery again.
If only one thing had gone right for Stanford -- one of the two missed field goals, one of several penalties, one poorly executed fourth down play -- the Cardinal would have won this game, and if a few more had gone right, they would've won easily.
Finally, I'll leave you with this. The season isn't over. Please come in off the ledge. Stanford football is alive and well. Yes, the margin of error is gone, but there are still important games to be won and trophies to be lifted.
Stay Mighty, Cardinal fans. Stay Mighty.
[Photo Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images]