By Matthew E. Milliken
Sept. 24, 2016
Given USC’s haughty college football legacy and Stanford’s modest one, Cardinal football fans have found themselves both surprised and gratified to be looking down on the Trojans in recent seasons. Last September, the Cardinal went to Los Angeles and upset the Trojans, 41-31. In December, the teams met again in the Pac-12 championship game, and after a tense third quarter, the Cardinal exploded to claim a 41-22 victory.
But as the disclaimers on the financial-management firm advertisements and prospectuses invariably state, past performance is no guarantee of future results. So when USC came to the Bay Area last Saturday for a game at Stanford Stadium, I was by no means confident in the outcome.
That held true early in the first quarter, when the Cardinal went three and out and Justin Davis opened USC’s initial possession by rushing for 30 yards on the first four plays. But immediately afterward, the Stanford defense asserted itself, holding Davis to a one-yard reception, stopping rusher Ronald Jones II behind the line of scrimmage and then tackling Jones short of the first-down marker on third and 20, which had been set up in part by a USC false start on second and 9.
On its second drive, Stanford comported itself with much more poise. All-world back Christian McCaffrey gained 11 yards on three straight rushes before Ryan Burns connected with tight end Dalton Schultz for nine yards. McCaffrey was stopped for no gain on second down, but Burns rushed for four yards to convert third down.
On the very next play, very bizarrely, USC’s defense failed to account for McCaffrey. The Cardinal set up on first and 10 at their 44-yard line in a double-barreled shotgun formation with McCaffrey standing to Burns’s left. On the snap, the running back wheeled around left end as left flanker Michael Rector hooked inside and then angled towards the left corner. Marvin Tell III was lined up as a safety. As Rector approached, he took a step inside toward the wide receiver but then edged back away toward McCaffrey. Tell was facing Burns the whole time, as if playing contain to guard against a quarterback rush or a play-action run.
When Burns released the ball, Tell turned to look toward McCaffrey, but by that point, the 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up had already zipped behind him and was five or so yards upfield. Burns threw a beautiful pass that McCaffrey gathered in stride around the 35-yard line and ran the rest of the way to the end zone without encountering a single Trojan defender. The 56-yard touchdown gave the Cardinal a 7-0 lead.
USC responded with a long drive, but it stalled at the Stanford 29-yard line thanks in part to a pair of false starts by the Trojans. Matt Boermeester booted a 47-yard field goal to cut the score to 7-3.
On the ensuing drive, the Cardinal moved the ball easily, thanks to back-to-back nine-yard McCaffrey runs and Burns completions to Trenton Irwin for 15 yards and Schultz for 11 yards. The team had to settle for a 31-yard field goal by Conrad “Old Reliable” Ukropina, making the score 10-3 early in the second quarter.
After the Cardinal defense forced a kick, the red-clad offense mounted another efficient drive that only had to travel 58 yards because USC was flagged for an illegal block out of bounds on the punt.
Stanford’s game plan for this drive was simple: Run, run, run the ball. A quick recap of all eight plays:
• Bryce Love 9-yard run.
• McCaffrey 6-yard run, Stanford first down at the USC 42.
• McCaffrey 4-yard run.
• McCaffrey 33-yard run, Stanford first down at the USC 5.
• McCaffrey 2-yard run.
• McCaffrey 2-yard run.
• McCaffrey stopped for no gain.
• McCaffrey one-yard leap for a touchdown.
Give USC credit for stiffening in the red zone; take away credit for surrendering 33-yards to McCaffrey on a simple run off right tackle out of the I-formation.
That play was the essence of what we’ve come to expect from Cardinal football circa 2015–16: fullback Daniel Marx engaged USC inside linebacker Michael Hutchings, McCaffrey squirted through the hole and slipped through Tell’s hands before two Trojans defenders managed to corral him at the 5-yard line. The subsequent touchdown left the score 17-3, which is what it remained going to halftime.
There were two sets of eye-popping statistics for fans to see at halftime. To that point, USC was 0-for-4 on third-down attempts, while the home team was 5-for-8. Also, the Trojans had been flagged seven times for 51 yards, while Stanford had been penalized only five yards for a single false start.
Actually, there was one other eye-popping set of numbers. At intermission, USC had 152 yards from scrimmage, while McCaffrey had 173! (That tally doesn’t include a 22-yard kickoff return he had late in the first quarter.)
The Trojans got the ball to start the third quarter, and they came out with their best drive of the night. The visitors moved 33 yards on four Davis runs and one 11-yard pass by Max Browne. After a passing play was stopped for a three-yard loss by Cardinal cornerback Alijah Holder, Browne found Tyler Petite for a 38-yard reception, the longest Trojan play of the night. Two plays later, Jones plunged in for a one-yard touchdown, narrowing the score to 17-10.
Stanford answered with a 10-play, 50-yard drive that consumed five minutes and 40 seconds. Burns attempted two passes. One was incomplete; the other, to McCaffrey, netted one yard on third and long; otherwise, Stanford ran. Bryce Love gained 16 yards on the opening play, while the Cardinal also got first downs on an 11-yard Burns run and a nine-yard McCaffrey gain. The drive culminated in a 42-yard Ukropina kick to make it 20-10.
The game was essentially determined over the next six snaps. Browne threw three times, connecting only on second down with a four-yard throw to Davis. USC punted on fourth down.
Burns and crew then swung into action. On first down, McCaffrey ran for six yards. Then, on second down from the Cardinal 44, Burns faked a handoff to McCaffrey going off right tackle while Rector, who had lined up at right flanker, zipped through the backfield. Burns handed the pigskin to Rector who continued around left end with nary a pause.
Three defenders pursued Rector as he approached the line of scrimmage, but none of them had a chance of catching him. The only Trojan who had any kind of opportunity to do so was defensive back Chris Hawkins, who had lined up in the secondary near the right end of Stanford’s offensive line. But Rector stiff-armed Hawkins around the 15-yard line and continued into the end zone for a 56-yard rushing touchdown. Stanford 27, USC 10.
The Trojans were by no means dead or buried. But on the ensuing drive, which extended into the beginning of the final period, outside linebacker Joey Alfieri stopped Jones for no gain on fourth and 1 at the Cardinal 18-yard line.
Stanford wasn’t able to put the game away because on third and nine, Burns threw a deep ball to Francis Owusu running along the right sideline. He put a bit too much mustard on the pass, however, and Adoree’ Jackson was able to take advantage, fighting his way through a face-mask penalty on Owusu to intercept the ball.
But over the next five plays, USC gained only 15 yards. Facing fourth down and six yards to go at the Stanford 44-yard line with about nine and a half minutes remaining in the game, Trojans head coach Clay Helton elected to punt — a decision that may wind up haunting him.
The Cardinal didn’t score on the next possession, but it did eat up nearly five minutes. When the Trojans got the ball back, they had backup signal-caller Sam Darnold under center and only about four and a half minutes in which to make up a 17-point deficit.
USC advanced to the Stanford 17-yard line, but then Darnold slightly underthrew Petite on a pass in the flat. Cardinal free safety Zach Hoffpauir was reaching around Petite as the Trojan player slipped to the ground in a futile attempt to catch the ball. Hoffpauir’s right arm swiped downward sharply, barely brushing the ball, which hit Petite’s right forearm and bounced directly into Cardinal linebacker Noor Davis’s arms.
The accidental interception left Stanford in charge with less than two minutes. Three running plays later, time in the game expired, finalizing a 27-10 Cardinal victory.
All in all, it was a fine night for McCaffrey, who had 175 yards rushing and 66 yards receiving to go with his 22-yard kickoff return, amounting to 260 all-purpose yards. And it was a great night for Stanford, given that the game wasn’t even as competitive as the final score might suggest.