Trojans break Cardinal streak: Stanford goes down, 20-17, in a heart-breaking defeat in Los Angeles

November 22, 2013

By Matthew E. Milliken
Nov. 20, 2013

I can’t think of le mot juste to describe Stanford’s 20-17 upset loss at USC Saturday night.

Shocking? Yes, it was that. After all, the Trojans are the team that had lost at home, 10-7, to lowly Washington State on Sept. 7. That was a game in which USC gained just 193 yards.

Devastating? Yes, it was that, too. With the Cardinal falling to 8-2 overall and 6-2 in the Pac-12 North, the team lost the primacy it had wrested from Oregon with the inspiring 26-20 victory on Nov. 7. Stanford still might advance to the conference championship game by beating california (lowercase c intentional), but that scenario now requires the Ducks to lose either to Arizona (6-4, 3-4 Pac-12 South) or Oregon State (6-4, 4-3 Pac-12 North). That is, at best, an uncertain prospect.

Expected? Oddly, this also fits. Stanford has played with fire time and again. The Cardinal dominated Oregon for roughly 50 minutes, but the final score showed just how effectively the Ducks managed to claw back into the game. In fact, with the exception of the 55-17 pasting of Washington State, virtually every win the Cardinal has had this year might have gone the other way had a handful of plays yielded different results.

Oregon State would have needed just a touchdown and a two-point conversion to tie Stanford as the clock wound down. Before Kodi’s catch was made with nearly two-thirds of the contest vs. UCLA having already been played, the score was tied, 3-3. With 1:16 left to play, a review showed (to some folks, anyway) that a fourth-down Washington pass had fallen incomplete, thereby wiping out a play that would have extended their drive for a game-tying field goal. Despite ultimately losing by 14 points, Arizona State put a huge scare into the Cardinal by ripping off three straight fourth-quarter touchdown drives. Army is 3-7 so far this year, but the Cardinal could muster only a paltry 20-13 halftime lead in the game at West Point — and that required a 47-yard Jordan Williamson field goal as time expired in the second period.

Inevitable? As noted above, 8-2 Stanford is a few bad bounces from being, say, a much shakier-looking 6-4 team. And by and large, the Cardinal’s vulnerabilities have typically stemmed from its offense.

Take a look at Stanford’s drive chart from Saturday’s first half:

• 3 plays, one yard lost, punt.

• 5 plays, 76 yards, Tyler Gaffney 35-yard touchdown run.

• 8 plays, 34 yards, punt.

• 3 plays, nine yards, punt.

• 11 plays, nine yards, Conrad Ukropina 27-yard field goal.

Gaffney’s gorgeous run gave Stanford a 7-6 lead, but USC retook the advantage, 14-7 (with a two-point conversion), on its very next possession. Andre Heidari hit a 27-yard field goal in the second quarter for a 17-7 Trojans edge. Ukropina’s kick narrowed the margin to 17-10.

That seemed promising, because few teams have ever mounted a shakier first drive without turning over the ball. On the third play, with six yards to go from the 26, the Cardinal called timeout with 13:18 left in the initial period. Center Khalil Wilkes then dropped the ball prior to the snap, resulting in a five-yard false-start penalty. Amazingly, Stanford next called a second timeout — still with 13:18 remaining! Then Kevin Hogan threw a perfect long bomb to Ty Montgomery that the receiver, inexplicably, failed to reel in. (Montgomery, alas, dropped a number of balls Saturday night that a wideout of his skills should have been able to snag.)

So USC was off to a fast start — Cody Kessler completed 12 of his 14 first-half passes, garnering 158 yards and a touchdown — but Stanford, after some initial struggles, had not allowed itself to be buried. Anything could happen. Anything…

The second half gave Stanford fans plenty of reason to hope — and plenty of grist for despair. USC took the opening kickoff and drove into Cardinal territory but was forced to punt from the 39-yard line. Stanford responded with a nine-play, 63-yard scoring drive capped by an 18-yard Gaffney rush. That tied the contest at 17-up.

On the ensuing drive, Kessler was sacked for a 13-yard loss by Trent Murphy, who had two sacks, two other tackles-for-loss and eight total stops on the day. (Murphy averages 1.2 sacks and 1.8 TFLs a game, both tops nationally.) Shayne Skov, who led the team with nine overall tackles, recovered Kessler’s lost ball at the 19-yard line, and the Cardinal was primed to surge into the lead.

It never happened. On third down and three to go from the 12, Hogan threw incomplete to Montgomery, and Ukropina came on for a 30-yarder. Offensive lineman Chad Wheeler blocked the kick, however — the second blocked Cardinal figgie in as many games.

The teams indulged in a punt sandwich — USC provided the bread, Stanford the middle — before the Cardinal took over the ball at its 10-yard line with 14:45 left in the fourth quarter. Hogan and Gaffney moved the pigskin efficiently, advancing to the Trojans 6-yard line.

Then the team seemed to get in its own way. On a wildcat formation, Gaffney was dropped for a loss of four yards. Hogan threw twice: incomplete on second down, picked by Dion Bailey on third down. A red zone interception — disaster!

But the Cardinal defense forced a USC punt, and coach David Shaw had Hogan hand off three times to Gaffney, the team workhouse. Results: Three yards on first down, two yards on second down, no yards on third down, Cardinal punt on fourth down.

Still, hope remained. Stanford held the Trojans to a three and out; the visitors consequently took over at their 32 with 3:40 to play. After he completed an eight-yard throw to Jordan Pratt on first down, Hogan was picked by Su’a Cravens.

That was the Cardinal’s second turnover of the final period, and that was the beginning of the end. Stanford held Nelson Agholor to a seven-yard reception on third and nine, but after a timeout at the 1:23 mark, Kessler hit Marqise Lee for a 13-yard game on fourth down.

The visitors’ chances seemed to be diminishing with each passing second. On second and seven from Stanford’s 32, Kessler connected with Agholor for an 11-yard gain. The Trojans lost eight yards rushing on the next three plays, but Heidari made a 47-yard kick with 19 seconds left on the clock to give USC a 20-17 advantage.

After a time-consuming 10-yard return, Stanford — out of ways to stop the clock — could attempt just one play from scrimmage with nine seconds left. Hogan threw a short pass to Jeff Trojan, who pitched the pigskin back to Dallas Lloyd, but Lloyd lost the ball, and USC recovered with no time remaining.

Your final from the Los Angeles Coliseum: USC 20, Stanford 17. Trojans fans stormed the field to celebrate their first victory over the Farm club since 2008. Interim head coach Ed Orgeron conducted the Trojans band, exuberantly waving a sword. As one of my Twitter pals tweeted, #timber.

But the game should never have come down to that desperate final play. The thing that stood out about the contest for me on Stanford’s side, besides Hogan’s interceptions and Montgomery’s drops, was the penalties: The Cardinal were flagged six times for a season-high 70 yards. Besides Wilkes’ false start, Stanford was called for two face masks, one personal foul and two holds.

I was also frustrated, more than I have been during any other game under Shaw, by Stanford’s play-calling. I don’t believe the Cardinal should have a 90-10 run to pass ratio. But by now, I’m certain that Hogan is a quarterback with significant limitations. With the game tied at 17 and plenty of time left, a touchdown would have been nice — but a field goal was even more crucial.

And yet — and yet. I also feel that Shaw’s hands were somewhat tied. By the fourth quarter, Ukropina had already had one blocked kick, so maybe the coach was right to play for a touchdown. And by the time of the team’s penultimate possession, Shaw had just seen the result of running Gaffney exclusively: five yards on three tries and a punt. So maybe, just maybe, he was right to call a pass on second and two…

Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the team’s promise has been held up to some extent by the coaching, particularly by the offensive play-calling. For all that Hogan was woeful — 14 for 25, two picks, 127 yards — the team gained 210 yards on the ground and held the Trojans to just 23 rushing yards. In fact, the Cardinal had a small edge in overall yards, 337 to 311, and third-down conversions: 4-12 for Stanford vs. 4-14 for USC.

The defense has held opponents to 74 or fewer yards rushing in seven of 10 games, and to fewer than 300 yards passing in the same number. It’s forced at least one turnover in 35 straight games, the second-longest active streak. The last time the defense surrendered more than 28 points was in a 54-48 overtime win vs. Arizona in 2012 — a stretch of 19 games.

Yet despite having that nasty defense, the Cardinal stands at 8-2 this season, with losses to a significantly less talented Utah team and to a talented but beatable Trojans squad. (Remember that 10-7 defeat to Washington State? Kessler and Max Wittek combined to go 11 of 21 for two picks and 54 yards in that contest.)

So where does this leave us? Well, we know the defense is outstanding, and we know the Cardinal still has a solid rushing attack. Gaffney turned in another fine performance — 158 rushing yards on 24 carries with two touchdowns, his fifth straight game eclipsing the century mark. All but one of Stanford’s other rushers averaged at least three yards a carry. No receiver had a particularly outstanding performance, something that can be chalked up partly to Montgomery’s drops (oh, that first-drive bomb that he missed!) and partly to Hogan’s inconsistency.

So Stanford, going into Big Game vs. california (again, lowercase c intentional) is still searching for the right offensive formula. That shouldn’t be a problem in Game 11 — which I mean both in the sense that Stanford still shouldn’t be trying to figure out the right mix of plays at this point in the season and that cal with its woeful defense and not particularly impressive offense shouldn’t pose much of an obstacle.

But this was a team that entered the year with a hope — granted, a dim hope, but not a wildly unrealistic one — of contending for a national championship. At the least, the team was hoping to head back to the Rose Bowl or another BCS game. Barring some unforeseen happenings with Oregon, that’s unlikely to occur.

A win tomorrow will be significant, however. It would send off the four-year seniors with their fourth victory over the Golden Bears. And a win the week after that, vs. Notre Dame, would avenge Stanford’s 20-13 overtime loss to the Fighting Irish. (Stepfan Taylor was in!)

The Cardinal likely won’t make the Pac-12 championship game. But it is bowl bound, and a postseason win would allow the team to finish the season with a three-game winning streak and an 11-2 record.

There isn’t as much to play for as there would have been had Stanford beaten the Trojans. But there still is a lot on the line.

It’s almost game day. It’s Big Game week. It’s time for the Stanford Cardinal to shine!

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