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Football notches steady win over Trojans
Fifth-year senior Michael Rector (center) waltzes into the end zone to put Stanford up 27-10 in the third quarter against USC on Saturday. After the Trojans began chasing junior Christian McCaffrey in an attempt to stop the star running back, the wide receiver sweep dazzled the USC defense and sealed the win for the Cardinal. (MIKE KHEIR/The Stanford Daily)

Football notches steady win over Trojans

After getting obliterated by Christian McCaffrey in last year’s Pac-12 Championship, USC knew that it had to shut him down in order to take down Stanford. After keeping the junior running back relatively quiet early on, the wheels began to fall off after the Trojans committed the cardinal sin: leaving him wide open.

When asked what he was thinking when he saw McCaffrey open 10 yards down the field on the play, head coach David Shaw had a typically terse response: “Touchdown.”

The play would in fact result in a 56-yard touchdown, and No. 7 Stanford (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12) would never relinquish its lead as it defeated USC (1-2, 0-1 Pac-12) by a 27-10 margin.

For McCaffrey, it wasn’t quite a match of his performance last December that gave the Cardinal the conference title, but it was more than enough to get the job done. The junior running back finished with 165 rushing yards, 73 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns.

But while the stat line points to McCaffrey as the star of the night, Stanford won this game in the trenches, with a powerful performance from its much-improved offensive line. The Cardinal tallied 6.3 yards per carry in the game, with 295 rushing yards in total. By stacking the box and varying personnel, the Stanford offense was able to wear down USC’s front seven and create space for all of its backs.

I thought up front we really gelled,” Shaw said of his offensive line. “We were looking for that improvement on the offensive line this week. I thought we got that. Guys played hard. They played physical. We knew [USC] had some really good players up front, and we had to play smart and play hard and strain in the run game.”

As a whole, Stanford’s offensive performance was a big statement, as well as a display of its full personnel. From McCaffrey’s big touchdown catch, to a 56-yard dash by fifth-year senior wide receiver Michael Rector on an end-around, to the return of the dangerously explosive sophomore running back Bryce Love, Shaw and offensive coordinator Mike Bloomgren came up with a scheme that got everyone involved and made it tough for the Trojans to keep up.

Senior quarterback Ryan Burns turned in another solid effort, completing 9-of-15 passes for 109 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. But his relatively quiet night points more to the dazzling show that the offensive weapons surrounding him put on.

“We have so many playmakers, I really just gotta get it to the guys that are open,” Burns said. “It makes my job a lot easier when we have that many guys who can take the ball to the house.”

On the defensive end, while the Cardinal originally had their share of slip ups against the Trojan offense, Stanford was able to win on that side of the ball by making adjustments.

USC’s duo of running backs in sophomore Ronald Jones and senior Justin Davis combined for 126 yards and a score. But while they looked impressive early on, the Cardinal found it easier to stop them as the game progressed, both by wearing out the Trojans’ offensive line and by bringing fresh legs into the game.

Even without junior Harrison Phillips, who sat due to injury, the Stanford front seven was able to keep up with USC. It speaks volumes to the depth that the Cardinal have on their defensive line, from junior Solomon Thomas, who brought down Jones in a powerful play early on in the game, to fifth-year senior Jordan Watkins, who started at nose tackle in place of Phillips and had another solid game.

We have a lot of guys that we trust now and roll through both on the inside and outside of the D-line,” senior linebacker Peter Kalambayi said. “Keeping fresh bodies in there really made up for his absence.”

Stanford headed to the locker room with a 17-3 lead that seemed quite secure given how USC was playing at the end of the first half. But the Trojans came out firing to start the third quarter, putting together a 75-yard drive in three and a half minutes that led to their only touchdown of the night.

From that point on, however, USC couldn’t manage to get anything going on offense. Stanford came up with a number of key stops, most notably a fourth-and-one in the red zone during the fourth quarter. The Cardinal secondary had a large role to play in that endeavor, as it limited junior wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, one of the best receivers in the nation, to just 34 yards on 3 catches. But by being able to stop USC’s running game and simultaneously being stingy with coverage, the Cardinal neutralized all of the Trojans’ offensive weapons.

“They came back in the third quarter, established the run again,” Shaw said. “I think we bounced back again. Once we bounce back and do a better job against the run, we make a team one-dimensional. Hopefully our pass rush and our coverage wins the game for us, and that’s kind of what happened tonight.”

The win was a big one for Stanford to get: While the rest of its conference has featured its share of early-season gaffes, the Cardinal have played solidly through two games. There is certainly room to improve, from a passing game that could be more accurate to a run defense that still misses the occasional tackle, but overall, Stanford has to be happy with how it looks through a pair of games against challenging opponents.

“I’m satisfied with the win and how our guys played and kept progressing. Even though we won though, there is still a lot of stuff we’ve got to fix,” McCaffrey said. “So we’ll celebrate this victory and get back to the drawing board tomorrow.”

Stanford will next travel south to Pasadena to take on the UCLA Bruins for the second of its 11 straight weeks of football.

 

Contact Sandip Srinivas at sandips ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Sandip Srinivas

Sandip Srinivas '18 is the Football Editor, a sports desk editor and a beat writer for men's basketball and football at The Stanford Daily. Sandip is a sophomore from Belmont, California that roots for the San Francisco Giants during even years and roots for Steph Curry year-round. He is majoring in Symbolic Systems and can be contacted via email at sandips 'at' stanford.edu.