Three and Out: USC outlasts Stanford in game full of missed opportunities

Three and Out: USC outlasts Stanford 13-10 in a game full of missed opportunities.
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PALO ALTO, CALIF. -- USC edged Stanford 13-10 in a Pac-12 clash on Saturday afternoon. Here are three quick thoughts from the game:

1. Stanford kept finding new ways to self-destruct

Stanford’s day is best summed up by what transpired after a flurry of USC penalties in the third quarter. The Cardinal had a first-and-10 from the Trojans’ 32-yard line. USC’s best linebacker was out for the game after Hayes Pullard was ejected for targeting, and it seemed like Stanford was finally poised to take control of a contest it had largely dominated.

Instead, quarterback Kevin Hogan and tailback Remound Wright fumbled the exchange in a routine handoff with no defensive pressure. Delvon Simmons recovered the gift and USC marched down the field to tie the game at 10.

Stanford somehow managed to take six trips inside the USC 25-yard line without scoring. It was done in by, among other things, an ill-fated snap in the Wildcat formation, Jordan Williamson’s missed 26-yard field goal, third-string fullback Daniel Marx’s failed fourth-and-one, Wright’s illegal block that negated a touchdown and, finally, J.R. Tavai’s strip-sack of Hogan that ended the game.

The Cardinal’s offensive futility was good to the last drop. They found an uncanny way to self-destruct on seemingly every possession.

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2. Neither team looked very impressive

The truth of the matter is neither team looked particularly sharp. USC cashed in on a buffet of Stanford mistakes, penalties and missed red zone opportunities to pull off an improbable win. Senior Andre Heidari -- the hero in the Trojans’ 20-17 upset of the Cardinal last November -- kicked the game-winning 53-yard field goal with 2:30 remaining.

However, USC didn’t clinch the victory until linebacker Tavai stripped Hogan with 19 seconds left. The Cardinal were driving to set up a potential game-tying field goal, but self-destructed on the cusp of scoring as they had done so many times throughout the game.

The result gives the Trojans a bizarre but defining victory early in coach Steve Sarkisian’s tenure. USC had no business winning. It was outgained 413-291, committed 10 penalties and lost linebacker Pullard to the targeting ejection.

But after Stanford punted from its 32-yard line, Trojans quarterback Cody Kessler calmly led the offense down the field to set up Heidari’s game-winner. The big play was a 29-yard completion to Nelson Agholor, who had nine catches for 91 yards.

3. Pat Haden’s sprint to the sideline was inexplicable

The most bizarre scene of the game came between the third and fourth quarters, when USC athletic director Pat Haden left the AD’s box on the third floor and ran to the Trojans’ sideline. USC had just been subjected to a flurry of flags, including for an unsportsmanlike conduct call on Sarkisian and the aforementioned targeting penalty on Pullard.

ESPN cameras followed Haden -- the network was in a commercial break when it happened -- on his jaunt to the sideline. He proceeded to argue with the officials, waving his arms much like a referee would signal a missed field goal. He then gave an interview to Heather Cox, turning this game into the theater of the absurd.

Making matters even stranger, Haden told Cox that he received a text message requesting his presence the sideline.

In all my years covering college football, I have never seen an athletic director speak to the officials. And I certainly never saw one hustle from his box to do it.