While we've definitely seen stranger things happen in the past eleven games between Stanford and USC, this year's contest just might have proved that things aren't as upside down as you might think. It's time to accept this new reality, one in which Stanford, not USC, is the conference favorite, Stanford is the team with national championship aspirations, Stanford has the lightning quick athletes, and Stanford has the Heisman candidate. For much of the past decade the Cardinal and the Trojans have engaged in battles that often went down to the final possession, but these past three games have seen three convincing Stanford victories by a combined score of 109-63. This win wasn't a surprise, it's just the way things are now.
The game started slowly, with both teams trading punts on their opening possessions, but the Stanford offense showed its strength on a series that started at its own 20 with 8:22 to play in the first quarter. Christian McCaffrey set the tone with three straight runs to give his team some breathing room, and four plays later he'd take everyone's breath away. On 1st and 10 from the Stanford 44, quarterback Ryan Burns lined up in the shotgun with McCaffrey in his left pocket and Bryce Love in his right. Both players sprinted out to the left on the snap, forcing the defenders to make a difficult choice. Tight end Dalton Schultz had lined up wide to the left, and his shallow crossing pattern took one defender away from that side of the field just as McCaffrey was curling up into that vacated space. The two defenders remaining, a linebacker and a safety, had to make a split decision -- which one would take McCaffrey, and which one would take Love. Sadly for the Trojans, they both locked onto Love (Can you blame them? Who would want to take CMac?), and McCaffrey sped past them into the great wide open. Burns saw him immediately and fired a rope that McCaffrey snagged at the 30 before racing untouched into the end zone. Stanford 7, USC 0.
When the USC coaches review that play in film study this week, I'm certain they'll remind their defense that the best player in America should always be covered by at least one man, two if possible, but their error is understandable. While McCaffrey clearly stands out above everyone else on the field, this Stanford offense has enough weaponry to cause confusion. More of this weaponry would be on display soon enough.
When the Trojans came back out onto the field following that touchdown they produced a drive that must have filled their fans with equal parts hope and frustration. Tailback Justin Davis was finding room to run behind his offensive line in the early going. He had gained 28 yards on four straight carries on USC's first possession, and he had a nice twelve-yard run to move the ball into Stanford territory on this drive. Quarterback Max Browne was also finding a groove, hitting Juju Smith-Schuster for 23 yards and finding Steve Mitchell for 19 and later for 11. But that offensive line that was opening holes for Davis and providing protection for Browne eventually sabotaged the drive. They were flagged three times for false starts on this drive alone (they'd have six such flags over the course of the game), the last of which turned a 3rd and 4 to a 3rd and 9. The Trojans would settle for a field goal, and it was 7-3.
Stanford would tack on a field goal in response to regain their touchdown lead at 10-3, but the most interesting play of that drive was actually an incomplete pass. On 2nd and 1 from the USC 48, McCaffrey lined up as a wide receiver split out to the left, and he drew a safety in coverage. Most collegiate and professional running backs who are employed in the passing game are fed a diet of long handoffs -- quick hitches in the flat, screen passes, check downs over the middle, stuff like that. What McCaffrey did on this play showcased his versatility and athleticism. He took off at the snap to push his defender deep, then slammed on the brakes to pull him in before speeding past him. Once again the best player on the field was wide open, five yards behind the defense, but this time Burns wasn't able to connect with him. His pass fell incomplete far beyond McCaffrey's reach.
This addition to McCaffrey's game will make him even more difficult to contain, and make the offense even more difficult to stop. When offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren uses him as a receiver, he's putting the defense in an impossible position. With McCaffrey in the huddle, the defense has to think run first, which means there will rarely be more than two cornerbacks on the field. Those two will likely line up against Michael Rector and Trenton Irwin, leaving a second-tier defender to deal with McCaffrey. If teams begin to notice this and play more nickel schemes with an extra defensive back, all Burns has to do is audible into a run, bring McCaffrey back into the backfield, and pound the ball against an undersized defense. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next few months.
The Trojans were only able to stay on the field for five plays on their next possession, thanks mainly to a huge sack by linebacker Casey Toohill, and when the Stanford offense returned they produced a very Stanford drive. They ran eight plays -- a nine-yard run by Love to open the drive followed by seven straight carries by McCaffrey -- until the ball was in the end zone and the Cardinal led 17-3. Oh, one more note about the 2016 version of Christian McCaffrey. Last season he was usually standing on the sidelines watching Remound Wright handle the shortage duties, but so far this season he's been in the fight in those situations. On Saturday McCaffrey was 3 for 3 on 3rd and 1, and after coming up short on 3rd and goal from the 1 on this touchdown drive, he converted on 4th and goal for the score. He had eight rushing touchdowns all of last season, a statistic some Heisman voters used against him, but he'll likely have at least double that number this year.
The first half ended with that two touchdown margin, but the Trojans emerged from the locker room and looked to get back into the game. Their offense moved the ball fairly well throughout the evening, and this first drive of the second half was a prime example of that. Running backs Justin Davis and Ronald Jones found success, rushing for 29 yards on the drive, and Browne was perfect, completing all three of his passes, including one to Tyler Petitte for 38 yards. When Jones pounded the ball across the goal line to cut the lead to 17-10, I suppose some Stanford fans might have been a bit concerned, but not many.
The Cardinal moved fifty yards on their next possession, using a preposterous 11 plays to do so, and ended up with a 42-yard field goal from Conrad Ukropina to jump ahead 20-10. After a quick three-and-out by the Trojans, the Cardinal offense would strike again.
On the second play of the drive, Ryan Burns and company lined up at their own 44. Wide receiver and four-time Washington state sprint champion Michael Rector stood ready in the right slot with cornerback Adoree' Jackson, probably the fastest man on the USC side of the field, lined up across from him. Rector turned towards the backfield at the snap, and Jackson immediately recognized the reverse, but he made a fatal mistake. Instead of running across the back of the defense to get an angle on Rector should he spring free, Jackson chose to chase after him directly. When Rector took the ball from Burns he was three strides ahead of Jackson and approaching top speed. He easily circled around two linebackers, and by the time he got to the fifty yard line the only question was whether or not Jackson would be able to catch him. He wouldn't come close. Defensive back Chris Hawkins slowed him down a bit with an attempted tackle, but Rector shook free at the ten and cruised into the end zone for the score and a 27-10 lead. Speed kills.
There were still more than three minutes to play in the third quarter, but the scoreboard wouldn't change again. The USC offense would see the ball three more times, but all three drives would end poorly for the Trojans. The first series died with a failed 4th and 1 attempt at the Stanford 18, the next ended with a questionable decision to punt on 4th and 6 from the Stanford 44 with less than ten minutes to play, and the final gasp came when backup quarterback Sam Darnold watched his deflected pass land in the arms of Noor Davis for a game sealing interception at the goal line. Soon enough, the game was over. Stanford 27, USC 10.
This win over the Trojans makes the Cardinal 2-0 for the first time since 2013, and propels them towards two huge road games against UCLA down south and the Washington Huskies in the Northwest. There's much to work on between now and then, but Stanford fans should take note of all that went well. The offensive line played much better than last week, and both Burns and the running backs benefited. The quarterback was never sacked, and the team rushed for a healthy 302 yards, led by McCaffrey's 172. How dominant was the running game? Even when USC knew a rush was coming, it hardly mattered. According to ESPN Stats Information, Burns lined up under center 37 times, and all but one of those plays was a run with the Trojans loading the box, but the Cardinal still averaged 6.1 yards per rush in those situations. My friend Chris and I chatted about this via Twitter:
And remember, this is just two games into the season, and there is still a great deal of improvement to be made. For now, though, the Stanford Cardinal is 2-0. Rejoice.