We shouldn't be surprised any longer when Stanford tops USC
PALO ALTO, Calif. -- As Stanford fans scampered out of the stands and on to the field Saturday night, David Shaw stood behind one end zone taking in the scene.
"I love the energy and enthusiasm," the Stanford coach said moments after his 21st-ranked team's upset of No. 2 USC. "The one problem I have with it is, I would like for everyone in the stadium to not be surprised by [the win]."
Excuse us, coach Shaw, but we were indeed caught off guard. Despite Stanford's consecutive BCS bowl berths, and despite its now-four game winning streak over the Trojans, few that attended or tuned in would have predicted that the Cardinal would shut down USC's star-studded offense so thoroughly en route to a BCS landscape-altering 21-14 victory. Or that Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes, after struggling so mightily for three quarters, would break out his best Andrew Luck impersonation -- both running and passing -- on a fourth-quarter go-ahead drive.
And after nine months of buildup stemming from Matt Barkley's decision to return to USC in order to accomplish "unfinished business," few would have predicted the Trojans to be the first of this season's expected national title contenders to suffer defeat.
"We kind of got humbled today," said Trojans linebacker Hayes Pullard.
This much we knew going in about Lane Kiffin's team: While unquestionably talented, it's not particularly deep. With All-American center Khaled Holmes sidelined by injury, and the Trojans' rebuilt offensive line still clearly missing 2011 All-American tackle Matt Kalil, Stanford's veteran defense dominated the line of scrimmage. It held USC to a measly 26 rushing yards and rendered it one-dimensional.
"If there was one game on the schedule you'd pick that you wouldn't want to be missing your senior center, this is it," said Kiffin. "I don't care who the backup was. You're going to miss [him] when you play this team."
In overwhelming USC's offensive line, Stanford frustrated preseason Heisman favorite Barkely into a nightmarish evening: just 20-of-41 completions, with two interceptions, four sacks and, for the first time since 2010, no touchdowns.
The normally effusive Barkley, who spent the offseason conducting countless interviews for every imaginable media outlet, walked into a makeshift tent outside and spent a brief postgame press conference with his head down and his voice barely audible.
"They played better football than us," was his explanation after falling a fourth time to the Cardinal, the lone Pac-12 team he hasn't defeated. Of course, he wasn't going to blame Cyrus Hobbi, the redshirt freshman that replaced Holmes, or any of his other offensive linemen.
"I don't think we can put the blame on that," he said. "There were a lot of other things that went wrong."
There was plenty that went wrong for Stanford, too. After an ugly first half in which the Cardinal committed as many penalties (six) as Nunes completed passes (6-of-17), USC led 14-7 at intermission. Kicker Jordan Williamson missed two field-goal attempts. The teams at one point combined for interceptions on three straight second-quarter plays and four straight series.
The Cardinal's young secondary, led by sophomore safety Jordan Richards (two interceptions), had done a tremendous job containing star receivers Marqise Lee (four catches for 35 yards) and Robert Woods (two for 28). But surely that wouldn't last.
"I was shocked," said Kiffin. "A lot of things had not gone our way because of things we had done, and so I thought we'd come out and start rolling."
Instead, the Cardinal clamped down even harder, holding USC to just 101 yards in the second half and allowing just one third-down conversion the entire night. Meanwhile, Stanford's offense kept pounding the ball with tailback Stepfan Taylor (27 carries, 153 yards). Opportunities started opening up for Nunes, who tied the game 14-14 late in the third quarter with a short pass to Taylor that he broke for a 23-yard touchdown.
Taylor, who Shaw has been talking up all offseason as the nation's most overlooked running back, broke a 59-yard touchdown run earlier and finished the night with 213 total yards. But Nunes, making his third career start, eventually stole the spotlight.
On a third-and-10 at midfield early in the fourth quarter, Nunes, finding no one open, took off and ran, juking USC defensive tackle George Uko en route to a 12-yard gain. Luck was known to make plays with his feet from time to time, but Nunes' play was "shocking," said Shaw. "He's not a runner ... He doesn't do that, not even in high school."
Then, on the very next play, Nunes -- who'd thrown downfield sparingly to that point -- perfectly placed a 37-yard dart to tight end Zach Ertz in the end zone for what would wind up as the game-winning score.
USC's last shot began with 2:44 left, and it summed up the Trojans' frustrations on the night. Rushed on almost every throw, Barkley picked up two first downs. However, consecutive sacks by Stanford linebackers Trent Murphy and Chase Thomas coupled with holding and false start penalties by USC eventually forced it into an untenable fourth-and-39. Barkley's last throw fell incomplete.
"We heard the talk all week about Barkley and Woods, and rightfully so," said Cardinal defensive end Ben Gardner. "But we were really confident about playing them all week. ... There were no real adjustments. We just stuck to the plan."
Kiffin will need to make adjustments going forward if USC hopes to achieve its lofty preseason goals. Injuries are already taking a toll on a team that started with 10 fewer scholarships than other programs due to its NCAA sanctions. With kicker Andre Heidari sidelined, Kiffin at one point went for it on a fourth-and-two from the Stanford 13. He didn't get it. And while Kiffin does not disclose injuries, it's believed Holmes will be out for an extended period.
"This isn't the end of the world," said Kiffin. "Well get back on the plane, go back to work and get better."
Indeed, as poorly as the Trojans played Saturday, anyone already dismissing them from the national title race clearly has a short memory. USC's 2003 team lost to Cal in September and went on to claim the AP trophy. And of course, "Alabama lost a game last year [in November] and won the national championship," said McNeal.
But Alabama lost to then top-ranked LSU, in overtime, in a game most figured could go either way. While Stanford made a strong statement that it's not going to fade away post-Luck, a national-championship team probably should be able to convert more than one third down against anyone. It probably should not allow 417 yards to a team that could barely move the ball on San Jose State two weeks ago.
"We have talked about not being a flash in the pan," said Shaw. "We don't want to be a team that is known for one victory, we want to be known for victory after victory. We want to be stacking wins on top of wins."
USC used to stack win after win under Pete Carroll. Many felt the Trojans were ready to start doing it again. Maybe they will once they face the rest of the Pac-12, but they may have to wait another year to end the recent stranglehold by their Northern California nemesis.
Maybe next time we won't be so surprised.