Triumph over the Trojans: Stanford powers to a 41-31 road win in Los Angeles

September 21, 2015

By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 21, 2015

When I met a friend and fellow Stanford alumnus at a Durham restaurant shortly before the kickoff of the Cardinal football team’s game at USC Saturday night, he asked me how I felt about the contest.

Jim was clearly worried, and I couldn’t lie: I was, too. “I’m skeptical,” I said*.

Then, not wanting to be too much of a negative nelly, I changed tacks.

“But you know, if the team could do it in 2007…” I said.

In 2007, Jim Harbaugh was a first-year coach at Stanford in his initial head-coaching job in the major college ranks. USC, the second-ranked team in the nation, was coached by Pete Carroll, who today is coming off of back-to-back Super Bowl appearances with the Seattle Seahawks and back then was fresh from piloting the Trojans to a loss in the national championship. Despite being 41-point underdogs, despite starting a quarterback with three college passes to his name, despite the Trojans not having lost a home game in six years, Stanford knocked off USC in a game that some hail as the greatest upset ever.

Now, I personally think that Stanford’s 1990 road victory over top-ranked Notre Dame, a 36-31 stunner in which “Touchdown Tommy” Vardell scored four times on goal-line plunges, is the greatest upset ever. (Interestingly, it took place exactly 16 years to the day before Harbaugh’s club toppled the Trojans.) But that’s an argument for another time…

Suffice to say that Jim and I were anxious about the game we were about to see Saturday evening. And the beginning of the contest did nothing to assuage us as USC took the opening kickoff and marched 76 yards on nine plays. On the fourth snap, Tre Madden ripped off a 30-yard run to the Cardinal 32, which was the second of three straight plays on which the Trojans gained first downs. Madden capped the possession with a 5-yard touchdown run.

Stanford advanced to the USC 45-yard line before stalling, and the Cardinal defense forced the Trojans to go three and out.

And then it was time for the white-clad squad to flash a bit of its potential. The first four plays of the drive were runs; on one, sophomore do-everything back Christian McCaffrey zipped ahead for 11 yards and a first down. The last four plays were passes. Fifth-year quarterback Kevin Hogan hit freshman wideout Trenton Irwin for 11 yards and a first down. Then he made a 21-yard strike to Bryce Love, another freshman receiver, that brought the Cardinal to USC’s 16-yard line. Hogan’s third attempt fell incomplete, but on the next play he tied the game with a throw to Austin Hooper; USC had left the junior tight end open over the middle, and he charged about nine yards to break into the end zone.

But USC immediately retook the lead. The Trojans needed only six plays and less than two minutes to travel 75 yards, with all-world quarterback Cody Kessler completing all four of his pass attempts. The final one went to Steve Mitchell for a six-yard touchdown.

Stanford’s attempt to retaliate faltered when Hogan’s pass to Hooper went awry on third down and 10 to go from the Trojan 24. Senior kicker Conrad Ukropina came on to make a 42-yard field goal that narrowed Stanford’s deficit to 14-10.

But the situation deteriorated when the Trojans responded with an eight-play, 92-yard drive. More than half of them came from one play when senior linebacker Blake Martinez played off of JuJu Smith-Schuster on a crossing route. Kessler, whose line gave him excellent protection, fired a 15-yard pass to the sophomore wideout who then zipped up the left sideline for a 54-yard score. That extended the Trojans lead to 21-10.

The Cardinal was going to be in dire shape unless the offense could cut into that margin. On this drive, the offense never faced third down, thanks in part to a 22-yard Hogan run out of a five-receiver formation that struck me as a designed keeper. The Cardinal also renewed the downs on a 10-yard McCaffrey rush and a 24-yard reception by Hooper. Remound Wright completed the possession with a leap from the 1-yard line that was initially spotted shy of the goal line before officials reviewed the video and properly awarded Stanford a touchdown.

Few if any people realized it at the time, but the tide of the game began to turn with the Trojans’ next possession. The precise start of the shift was when USC was flagged for holding during an incomplete pass thrown by Kessler on second and 8 at the Cardinal 47. After a short Ronald Jones rush, Kessler was sacked by outside linebacker Joey Alfieri on third and long, forcing a punt.

It was only the Stanford sophomore’s third collegiate tackle ever, and his first tackle for a loss, in only his third NCAA game. I looked at Jim and muttered something about how a defensive stop was a rare opportunity that the Cardinal desperately needed to exploit if they wanted to have a shot at winning.

And coach David Shaw had quietly, and brilliantly, positioned the team to capitalize on the break. Shaw has been criticized sharply by Stanford fans for his clock management, but in this case he deserved kudos: His calling timeouts after Jones’s carry and the Alfieri sack meant that a minute and 26 seconds remained in the half after Kris Albarado’s punt and McCaffrey’s fair catch.

Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren didn’t hurry things on the ensuing possession. The Cardinal mixed rushes and passes, with Hogan completing long gainers to the invaluable Hooper (24 yards) and to sophomore tight end Dalton Schultz (22 yards), which brought Stanford to the Trojan 17.

After a Hogan spike and a Trojans timeout, Hogan threw a pass to Devon Cajuste in the end zone. Amazingly, Stanford had taken a lead over USC with three seconds left. The score at halftime: Stanford 24, USC 21. Game on!

And yet, after intermission, Stanford seemed ready to crumble before a Trojan onslaught. After a one-yard McCaffrey rush, Hogan was sacked on consecutive plays. On the second tackle, Hogan’s left knee, already sporting a support brace, twisted at an ugly angle; he got up and hobbled off the field. ABC showed backup QB Keller Chryst warming up on the sidelines.

Then the Trojans were on the march yet again, due in part to a terrible Alex Robinson punt that traveled only 22 yards, to the Stanford 40. After Kessler scrambled for 18 yards, giving the Trojans goal to go from the 1, he and Mitchell combined for another short touchdown. Trojans 28, Cardinal 24.

Hogan came back on to the field, and Cardinal Nation held its collective breath. With the game hanging in the balance, would he be able to perform? Would his colleagues be able to execute under pressure?

They would, with the assistance of penalties on the Trojans for holding and pass interference. Wright made the drive’s two biggest plays for Stanford, a 22-yard rush for first down and a 1-yard touchdown plunge that put the visitors back on top, 31-28.

USC seemed ready to assert its might on offense, but a short Kessler pass that would have given the Trojans third and 1 from their 33 was offset by a personal foul on center Max Tuerk, a team co-captain, for sticking his hands in the facemask of a Cardinal defender.

The home squad was forced to punt, and Stanford had a chance to add to its lead. After McCaffrey lost 5 yards on the first play, Hogan completed consecutive throws to McCaffrey and Irwin for 10 yards each. At the start of the fourth quarter, on third and 6, Hogan saw that USC had left the middle open; despite some obvious tenderness in his left knee, he charged ahead for a 10-yard gainer and another Stanford first down. Three plays later, Hogan completed a 15-yard pass to Hooper (who else?!) to set up goal to go from the 1. Two plays later, Wright went over the top for his third touchdown plunge of the day.

Stanford 38, USC 28!

USC answered on the ensuing drive with a 36-yard Alex Wood boot, which cut the Trojans deficit back to a touchdown with 9:19 remaining in the game.

Stanford responded with a series that made explicit the shift that had subtly happened in the game, and in its attack: Over an 11-play possession, it called only a single passing play, which went for 19 yards. (That pass seemed to exploit one of Hogan’s bad habits: After looking to his left, he threw a dart to the right side of the field, where the elusive McCaffrey had room to roam.) Otherwise, Shaw and Bloomgren were content to gain yards, and grind down the clock, at a deliberate pace.

The team wasn’t able to score what almost certainly have been a game-clinching touchdown. But on fourth and 4 at the USC 29, Ukropina came on yet again to kick, this time from 46 yards out. His fifth attempt was true, like all of his previous tries on the season, and Stanford had an imposing 41-31 lead with less than two and a half minutes remaining in the game.

USC worked diligently to respond. Thanks to a flurry of passes, they advanced to Stanford’s 20-yard line before a personal foul on right tackle Zach Banner sent the Trojans back to the 35. Kessler fired four straight passes after that, but only the first connected. (Smith-Schuster made the 12-yard reception, capping an eight-catch, 153-yard night.) The next three fell incomplete, and Stanford only had to kneel once to secure another improbable upset.

Two statistics jumped off of the page after the game. One was third-down conversions, on which USC was 4-10 but Stanford was 8-12. (The Cardinal converted six of eight tries in the second half.) The other was time of possession, which the Cardinal absolutely dominated, 39:29 to 20:31.

Kessler turned in a fine performance (25-32, 272 yards, three touchdowns), but Hogan surpassed him in efficiency: 18-23, 279 yards and two touchdowns. Hogan distributed the ball to nine different receivers and gained 28 yards on seven rushes.

With Stanford calling 49 (!) rushing plays, the offensive attack hearkened back to the glory days of 2011-12; with the team scoring on all six red zone visits, and settling for a field goal on only one of those opportunities, it felt as if Shaw and the team had rolled back the calendar on 2014 and all of the offense’s wasted chances last season. While the Cardinal’s five penalties for 40 yards were not ideal (although that was partly due to at least one ticky-tack pass-interference call), they compared favorably with the eight penalties that cost the Trojans 87 yards.

But champions aren’t forged by a single game: They’re made over the course of a season, with its multitude of challenges and obstacles. This win over USC — the largest margin of victory by either team in the series since Stanford’s 55-21 triumph in the “What’s your deal?” thrashing back in 2009 — will always be remembered as a great moment. Whether 2015 will be remembered as a great year depends on Hogan and company continuing to execute cleanly and Lance Anderson’s defense consistently coming up with stops.

We’ll see what happens. All I know is that Stanford is now 2-1 overall and 1-0 in conference play.

One and oh, baby!


Standard disclaimer: Since I wasn’t taking notes or making recordings at the time of these events, all dialogue and thought bubbles are guaranteed to be only kind of, sort of accurate. Fortunately for you, the valued reader, this free blog comes with a money-back guarantee! 

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