USC defeats Stanford in game that played out like theater of the absurd

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PALO ALTO, Calif. -- USC athletic director Pat Haden received a text between the third and fourth quarters of his program’s game at Stanford on Saturday afternoon. The message was from one of his compliance officials requesting his presence on the sideline. So, Haden got up from the visiting athletic director’s box on the third floor of Stanford Stadium and made his way to the field.

USC coach Steve Sarkisian had just been penalized for a 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, and star linebacker Hayes Pullard was ejected for targeting on the following play.

Haden hustled, with ESPN cameras following his every move, and engaged briefly with two of the game’s officials. At one point, Haden made a waving motion with his arms like referee signaling a missed field goal. If the sight of the 61-year-old Haden running toward the sideline to defend his coach wasn’t bizarre enough, Sarkisian later admitted that he requested for Haden to come down.

The NCAA doesn’t keep statistics on things like a coach beckoning his AD via text message, but it’s a pretty safe bet that Saturday provided the first such act in college football history. Haden joked he was “mid-hot dog” when he received the text. “I was just an innocent bystander,” he said of his role in the incident. He also played nifty some semantic gymnastics: “I wasn’t arguing with the officials.”

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Haden played a starring role in the theater of the absurd that was No. 14 USC’s 13-10 victory over No. 13 Stanford. About the only part of Saturday that wasn’t surprising was finding Pac-12 officials ensnared in a controversy.

Haden’s sideline dash will further cement him in Trojans’ lore, as what fan of the team wouldn’t want the athletic director fighting for the coach? It could also make some folks uncomfortable, as Haden is part of the 13-member selection committee that will pick the four teams to play in the inaugural College Football Playoff. The Pac-12 was uneasy enough with the scene that it is “reviewing the situation,” according to a text that league commissioner Larry Scott sent

Stanford’s surreal ineptitude somehow managed to trump everything, though, as the Cardinal channeled their reputation for innovation by uncovering cutting-edge methods for self-destruction. USC kicker Andre Heidari’s 53-yard field goal with 2:30 remaining proved to be the game-winner in a contest full of missed chances. 

Stanford failed to score on six possessions when advancing the ball to USC’s 25-yard line. In total, Stanford got the ball to at least USC's 32-yard line on all nine of its possessions. It scored on two of them. “Almost loses games,” Stanford coach David Shaw told after the game. “That’s the bottom line.”

The Cardinal majored in almost on Saturday. A blend of baffling play-calling, debilitating penalties and old-fashioned poor execution did them in. Stanford killed drives in every possible way: A snap over receiver Ty Montgomery’s head in the Wildcat formation; two missed Jordan Williamson field goals (26 and 49 yards); a failed fourth-and-one on third-string freshman fullback Daniel Marx’s first career carry; a fumbled exchange between tailback Remound Wright and quarterback Kevin Hogan; a 23-yard touchdown pass negated by an illegal block; and, finally, a Hogan fumble on a strip-sack by USC’s J.R. Tavai with 19 seconds left.

Stanford also punted from its own 29- and 32-yard line and committed eight penalties for 68 yards. Even on one of its rare scoring drives, it endured consecutive pre-snap penalties -- coming out of a timeout. Fittingly, the game began with a false start by right guard Johnny Caspers and ended with Shaw tearing off his headset in disgust, a rare display of emotion for the normally stoic coach. Asked if he had ever experienced a day like this, Shaw said: “It’s been a long time. It’s been a long time.”

If the Cardinal would’ve made one play here or there, they might have spun the narrative. They outgained USC 413-291. Quarterback Kevin Hogan had a coming out party -- he went 22-of-30 for 285 yards -- and receiver Ty Montgomery played like an All-America withnine catches for 83 yards to go with a 44-yard punt return.

To his credit, Shaw took full responsibility for the mess. “That’s me, that’s me,” he said. That was never more apparent than during one of the drives in which Stanford scored. Facing a third-and-one from the USC seven-yard-line with 19 seconds to go in the first half, Shaw called for a timeout. His team proceeded to trot 12 players on the field and followed that up with a delay of game penalty. Stanford then failed to covert a third-and-10 to set up Williamson’s 33-yard field goal.

Shaw took umbrage to the criticism that he had been too conservative in his play calling, claiming that Stanford lined up in more personnel groupings and formations than any team in college football. “Mark it down,” he said. If anything, a more accurate criticism would be that Shaw got too cute on offense.

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For USC, this win goes a long way. On the heels of the Josh Shaw fabricated story drama and Anthony Brown accusing Sarkisian of being racist, it hasn’t been the smoothest couple of weeks for the program’s new head coach. But he’s 2-0 with entering next Saturday’s game at Boston College. The Trojans’ defense bent but didn’t break, and the offense didn’t turn the ball over.

“It’s huge,” Sarkisian said. “Remember, [Stanford] is the reigning Pac-12 champs the past two years. Haven’t lost in this stadium in 17 games.”

How good are the Trojans? They have 62 available scholarship players and stars such as banged-up defensive lineman Leonard Williams (11 tackles on an injured ankle) and wideout Nelson Agholor. It’s a long season, but this result is a start.

As USC exited Stanford Stadium, with “All About That Bass” thumping from the locker room, no one was smiling brighter than Haden. He has been hospitalized twice recently, but that hasn’t dampened his optimism. He joked darkly on Saturday: “I’m not going to die … today.”

Instead, he brought life to USC, stealing the show amid the theater of the absurd.