By George Chen
It was an upset for the ages.
So much for Matt Barkley’s Heisman hopes. So much for USC’s title aspirations. And so much for Stanford’s supposed decline after the Andrew Luck era.
In front of a sellout crowd of 50,360 tonight, No. 21 Stanford (3-0, 1-0 Pac-12) took down powerhouse No. 2 USC (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12), gutting it out for a stunning 21-14 upset. When the game clock hit zero, Cardinal fans stormed the field in an uncontrollable frenzy that topped all other celebrations on the Farm in recent memory.
“We have a talented bunch,” said senior inside linebacker Shayne Skov. “When you have a group of guys like that—22 guys—and they play lights out, they trust one another and they play together like that, it’s something special. We came out to play today, and we showed that we could do this, and that the showdown was going to be on the field.”
In what will go down as a truly unforgettable moment in school history, the victory marks the fourth season in a row that Stanford has managed to defeat the Men of Troy. No. 2 USC is the highest ranked opponent that the Cardinal has beaten since 2007, when Stanford, fittingly enough, shocked the Trojans in the “Biggest Upset Ever.”
“This was a great team effort and that is what we talked about,” said head coach David Shaw. “First and foremost, Derek Mason and our defensive staff were phenomenal.”
The Cardinal got off to an auspicious start when sophomore Ty Montgomery returned the opening kickoff for 64 yards, all the way out to the USC 33. But after Jordan Williamson’s 47-yard field goal attempt bounced off the crossbar, it was the Trojans who struck first on Barkley’s 49-yard pass to wideout Ryan Henderson, setting up Penn State transfer Silas Redd’s 1-yard touchdown run.
Midway through the first quarter, senior running back Stepfan Taylor responded with an assertive answer, exploding past helpless Trojan defenders for a 59-yard score that tied the game 7-7.
“Our offensive line was great, our fullback was back with Ryan Hewitt and then Stepfan Taylor,” Shaw said. “We were going to keep giving him the ball. He never gets tired, he drags people, he breaks tackles…We typically like to rest him, but when we need him—I told him this two years ago—we are going to put a saddle on him and ride him.”
Barkley was effective enough in the first quarter, airing it out for 105 yards, although his 6-of-12 stat line indicated right off the bat that he wasn’t in his usual flawless form. His passing yards were also inflated by his dangerous wide receivers—especially Marqise Lee, who finished with a game-high 100 receiving yards—and their abilities to gain yards after the catch.
But it was Stanford quarterback Josh Nunes who was frighteningly inaccurate in the early going, completing 2-of-8 passes for just 19 yards in the first quarter.
“One thing that is great about having a quarterback like [Nunes] is that he can come to the sideline and tell you exactly where everyone was,” Shaw commented. “Even if he missed the throw, he knew what to do and will make the play the next time.”
After the two teams traded a few inconsequential possessions, the Trojans tacked on seven more points via a 15-play, 58-yard drive that was sustained by a questionable defensive pass interference call. Cardinal fans could only watch in disbelief as wide receiver Robert Woods singlehandedly converted a fourth-and-19, right before Redd punched it in once again on a 1-yard carry that gave USC a 14-7 lead with 11:19 remaining in the second quarter.
A baffling series of interceptions—three consecutives ones and four over nine plays—would close out the first half. Barkley was intercepted first by safety Jordan Richards and Nunes followed suit when linebacker Dion Bailey came down with the ball on the next snap. As if things weren’t strange enough already, the Trojan quarterback threw another pick as soon as USC got the ball back. And by the time Nunes threw his second interception a few plays later, halftime had arrived and the Cardinal headed into the locker room still down 14-7.
Despite being down by just a touchdown, Shaw could not have been content with the costly mistakes, including three missed field goals and a wasted first-and-goal opportunity at the USC 2-yard line, that prevented Stanford from possibly taking the lead by halftime. Just as concerning was Nunes’ ongoing struggles, highlighted by his dismal numbers: 6-of-17 passing for 78 yards and two interceptions. To be fair, the Heisman favorite also threw two picks, but with 11-of-20 passing for 150 yards under his belt, Barkley looked poised to show his true colors in the second half.
Surely the Trojans were going to open the floodgates when the third quarter started. But they never did. Surely the Cardinal wouldn’t be able to shut out the Trojans for the entire second half. But it did.
“We heard the talk all week about Barkley and Woods, and rightfully so,” said junior defensive end Ben Gardner, who posted a sack and two tackles for loss in Stanford’s victory. “They’re a talented bunch, but we were really confident about playing them all week. We felt good about what we had and the way that guys were practicing. We knew that if we came out there with a lot of energy and played our hardest at every snap, good things would happen.”
Guided by defensive coordinator Derek Mason, the Cardinal defense did the unthinkable by actually encouraging Barkley to throw the ball. Other teams might have called it a suicide mission, but for Stanford, it was the perfect recipe to halt the Trojan attack as USC was held scoreless for the final 41:19 of the game.
“We were playing a great team and those guys made some plays, but we tried to make them one-dimensional and throw the ball,” Shaw explained. “That sounds crazy to put it in the hands of that quarterback and those receivers, but we knew we could play smart, sound football and keep those receivers in front of us and rally to the ball to make tackles.”
Barkley, who was sacked four times in the second half, repeatedly failed in finding a way to unlock an impenetrable Cardinal defense. The combination of the front even’s fierce pass rush and the secondary’s mistake-free coverage prevented Barkley from firing accurate throws to rarely open receivers. The best quarterback in college football simply had no answer while the Stanford defense inexplicably got stronger.
“If you sit back there, the quarterback is too good,” Shaw said. “Regardless of what happened tonight, that is the best quarterback in the country. If you give him too much time, he will kill you. You have to get after him…We had to mix it up. Some plays we came after him and some plays we sat back. Our secondary made all the tackles.”
Then the scoring started. Except it was the Cardinal that was putting up points on the board, not the lethal Trojan offense that everyone had expected to open things up by now. In the waning moments of the third quarter, Nunes found Taylor on a short pass that, thanks to some meticulously executed blocking, resulted in a 23-yard touchdown.
“I cannot say enough about Josh Nunes,” Shaw commented. “Josh is never rattled. He is a fighter. You don’t see a lot of emotions with him. He doesn’t have ups and downs. Josh is even-keeled and is the same when he makes a play as when he doesn’t make a play.”
The Stanford offense wasn’t finished yet, as it scored the go-ahead touchdown in the opening drive of the fourth quarter. Nunes connected with tight end Zach Ertz for a 37-yard score, capping a 10-play, 79-yard drive that gave the Cardinal a 21-14 lead. In that series, when the rookie quarterback couldn’t make a play with his arm, he hurt the Trojans with his surprisingly nifty feet—a 12-yard scamper on third-and-10 at midfield kept the drive alive. Even Shaw was impressed by the amount of toughness and heart Nunes showed in picking up the first down.
“Shocking is what it was,” Shaw said. “Shocking. I would say that if he was right next to me because he is not a runner. He broke tackles tonight and it was just the desire to make plays for his teammates. He is a very selfless individual.”
While Nunes completed the game with 215 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns, there’s no doubt that the game ball belongs to Taylor, who took over the game in the fourth quarter as he chewed huge chunks of time off the clock with his determined runs. The senior captain was responsible for two of Stanford’s three scores and finished with 153 rushing yards on 29 carries along with 60 receiving yards on four receptions.
“Coach [Shaw] basically told us to trust this game,” Taylor said. “That’s what we did: trust this game. We were going to go down the stretch, going to get tired. We were just going to keep chugging at it.
After Nunes barely overthrew Ertz in a failed third-down conversion attempt, Barkley and Co. got the ball back on its own 11-yard line with 2:44 left in the game, looking up at one last chance to tie up the game.
But Barkley choked it away.
The Men of Troy drove down to the Stanford 46, made possible when the ruling on Barkley’s incomplete pass to Lee on fourth-and-five was overturned. A Curtis McNeal carry didn’t fool anyone, causing the Trojans to lose three yards on the play and burn their last timeout.
And then for the first time this season, it became clear that Barkley, distraught and clueless, could not ever win against the Cardinal. For the first time this season, it became clear that USC’s prophesized national championship didn’t seem so certain anymore.
Second-and-13 at the Stanford 49. Incomplete pass and a 10-yard offensive holding penalty. Second-and-23 at the USC 41. Barkley sacked by Trent Murphy. Third-and-28 at the USC 36. Trojans self-destruct with a false start. Third-and-33 at the USC 31. Barkley punished by Chase Thomas.
With Heisman and national title hopes fading away from his sight, Barkley heaved one last desperate throw to T.J. McDonald on fourth-and-39, only to have the pass broken up by a swarm of Cardinal defenders. The upset was complete.
In his final year as the quarterback for the Trojans, Barkley once again came away empty-handed against the Cardinal. Four exciting games only produced four bitter losses. After amassing ten touchdowns through the first two games this year, he couldn’t throw a single one against Stanford.
“We have talked about not being a flash in the pan,” Shaw said. “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 consistent, stacking wins on top of wins.”
Stanford’s message tonight to the rest of college football rang loud and clear: the team can win huge games without Andrew Luck. Just ask USC.
Contact George Chen at gchen15 “at” stanford.edu.