Stanford stunned No. 6 USC 41–31, a huge rebound for the Cardinal from their Week 1 loss and a major blow to the Trojans' playoff chances.

By Chris Johnson
September 20, 2015

When Stanford lost to Northwestern to open the season, it was reasonable to have doubts about how the Cardinal would fare in the Pac-12. Coach David Shaw’s team proved its worth Saturday with a 41–31 win at No. 6 USCHere are three thoughts on the victory:

1. This is the Kevin Hogan we’ve been waiting for

After showing improvement toward the end of last season, Hogan looked out of sorts in Stanford’s loss to the Wildcats (20 of 35, 155 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT). He performed better the next week in a win over UCF (17 of 29, 3 TD, O INT), but it remained to be seen how he’d fare against a talented Pac-12 defense. Hogan stepped up in the Cardinal’s conference opener, delivering one of the best games of his career. He completed 18 of his 23 pass attempts for 279 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions while adding 28 yards on the ground.

Hogan’s performance was an encouraging turn for a Stanford team that ranked sixth in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency and 10th in passing yards per game last season. The Cardinal feature a talented offensive line, promising running backs such as freshman Bryce Love and sophomore Christian McCaffery (26 carries, 115 yards) and a capable set of pass-catchers including wide receiver Devon Cajuste and tight end Austin Hooper. To get the most out of those playmakers, though, Stanford needed Hogan to show he could consistently get them the ball.

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The senior rose to the occasion Saturday, in one of Stanford’s biggest games of the season, even though he was battling a knee injury during the second half. Whether he can build off this performance is an open question. Perhaps the ugly effort against Northwestern was just one bad game, a result of the Wildcats’ defense playing well or a combination of the two. But if Hogan regresses, we’ve witnessed the depths to which the Cardinal offense can sink. If Hogan keeps this up, though? Stanford may live up to its preseason billing as a contender in the Pac-12 North.

2. JuJu Smith-Schuster delivers, but USC should go to him more often

Smith-Schuster recorded 281 yards and three touchdowns over the first two weeks of the season, but it was hard to know what, exactly, to make of those numbers because they came against two Sun Belt foes. The Trojans receiver excelled when targeted Saturday, hauling in eight passes for 153 yards with a touchdowns (19.1 YPC).

Smith-Schuster is so difficult to cover because of his combination of strength and speed. He can out-muscle opposing defensive backs on jump balls, make tough catches in traffic and elude would-be tacklers in the open field. The rapport he and quarterback Cody Kessler began developing during Smith-Schuster’s freshman season has gotten stronger, and the two have the potential to become one of the most prolific QB-receiver tandems in the country.

On his first touchdown Saturday, early in the second quarter, Smith-Schuster scampered away from a linebacker in the middle of the field, caught the ball in stride, angled toward the sideline and outran two defenders before diving into the end zone.

Kessler has a number of weapons at his disposal—from Isaac Whitney to Adoree’ Jackson to Jalen Greene, among others—but USC should look to get Smith-Schuster the ball as often as possible. He’s showing signs that he could develop into the next great Trojans receiver. Pair a pass-catcher of Smith-Schuster’s caliber with a talented group of running backs, other capable receivers and a Heisman contender at quarterback, and you have the makings of a potent offense.

3. USC failed its first real test of the season

The Trojans beat Sun Belt foes Arkansas State and Idaho by a combined score of 114–15 over the first two weeks of the season. But those performances didn’t tell us much about USC, besides the fact that it was capable of dominating subpar opponents. How would coach Steve Sarkisian’s team, which rose to No. 6 in the Associated Press Poll this week, fare against a quality Pac-12 opponent? Not as well as expected. The Trojans yielded 474 total yards and allowed unranked Stanford to control the ball for nearly 40 minutes in a double-digit-point loss.

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​The good news for USC is that it will have plenty of opportunities to score big wins during conference play, starting with next week’s trip to Arizona State. Yet Saturday was a prime chance to cement its status as a contender in the rigorous Pac-12 South and for a berth in the College Football Playoff. The Trojans, quite simply, fell short.

Saturday’s result further complicates a conference that has no clear frontrunner in either division. Oregon and Stanford were picked to finish first and second in the Pac-12 North. After three weeks, the Cardinal have taken one surprising loss (at Northwestern) and scored one impressive win (USC), while Oregon has yet to register an impressive victory but suffered a close loss to a quality team on the road (Michigan State). Meanwhile, USC and Arizona State were voted to finish first and second in the South. The Sun Devils underwhelmed in their season-opening loss to Texas A&M, and the Trojans fell at home on Saturday.

Who is the league's best team? It’s hard to say at this point—UCLA could make a case by beating BYU on Saturday—but the lack of clarity should only make the next two months more interesting.