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Haunted by red zone woes, Stanford falls to USC 13-10

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On Saturday, the Stanford offense marched to at least the USC 32-yard line on every single possession, made five trips to the red zone, racked up 413 yards on offense, gained 6.1 yards per play and bested the Trojans in almost every major statistical category.

But after four quarters, all the Cardinal had to show for was 10 points.

Wasting opportunities after opportunities on offense, No. 13 Stanford (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) lost to No. 14 USC (2-0, 1-0) 13-10 in what was one of the sloppiest games that the Cardinal have played this decade, while their longest home winning streak in the nation was also snapped at 17. Eerily similar to last year’s loss at the Coliseum, the Cardinal’s mind-numbing failure in the red zone — three scoreless trips — overshadowed a dominant Stanford defense that controlled the line of scrimmage and played lights-out in the secondary for most of the game. The Cardinal offense wasn’t stellar in the red zone on the road last year but scored on every red zone trip in home games, making today’s miserable performance even more shocking.

“The problem in the red zone right now is me,” said head coach David Shaw. “I got to get back to work and make sure we’re doing things that our guys can do, put them in positions to be successful.”

Stanford also uncharacteristically drew eight penalties for 68 yards on Saturday, four of which occurred when the Cardinal were within field-goal range and three were committed by three different offensive lineman on the game’s opening drive. Two of the three penalties on the Cardinal O-line on the first drive knocked Stanford back and resulted in a missed 49-yard field goal attempt — it was tipped at the line of scrimmage — by fifth-year senior kicker Jordan Williamson.

After the Trojans scored a touchdown on their first series, the Cardinal answered in the second quarter by marching on a 11-play, 77-yard drive capped by senior fullback Pat Skov’s first career touchdown. Williamson then hit a 33-yard field goal on the following drive to give the Cardinal a 10-7 lead at halftime. Stanford saw some early success in the running game, but even with star defensive lineman Leonard Williams hampered by an ankle injury and inside linebacker Hayes Pullard ejected in the fourth quarter, the Trojans front seven tightened up as the game wore on and held the Cardinal to 3.4 yards per carry by the end of the game.

There were times the ball was handed off, there was a hole, by the time the runner got there, there was no hole,” Shaw said. ” I give [USC] credit, they’re good up front.  We got to block them better and find ways to get through in the running game.”

Stanford’s sloppiness on offense was apparent in the first half — the Cardinal were fortunate to recover two of their own fumbles in the red zone — but the self-inflicted wounds became nightmarish and almost unbelievable at times in the second half. Williamson missed a 26-yard field goal try to the right and then freshman fullback Daniel Marx was stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1 at the Trojans 3. After Williamson’s second miss, Shaw didn’t seem comfortable with letting him go back out on the field despite the fact that the Cardinal offense was in Williamson’s usual field goal range on every possession. Even when Stanford finally appeared to get a break early in the fourth quarter when Hogan found a wide-open sophomore tight end Austin Hooper in the end zone, the touchdown was called back after senior tailback Remound Wright was flagged for a questionable chop block.

Despite all the baffling mistakes the Cardinal made in the red zone, they still had one last chance to win the game after USC kicker Andre Heidari sent a career-long 53-yard field goal through the uprights with 2:30 left in the game. Senior quarterback Kevin Hogan threw five consecutive completions — spreading the ball to Hooper, Ty Montgomery and Michael Rector — to drive his team down to the Trojans 22. But with the game on the line, Stanford failed to survive its red zone woes. Linebacker J.R. Tavai hit Hogan from his blind side on third-and-6 and forced a game-sealing fumble recovered by linebacker Scott Felix. It was a disappointing finish for Hogan, who otherwise had a decent day in the passing game by going 22-of-30 passing for 284 yards.

“I know [Hogan] would love to have four plays back, and that’s too many,” Shaw said.

Contact George Chen at gchen15 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

George Chen is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily who writes football, football and more football. Previously he worked at The Daily as the President and Editor in Chief, Executive Editor, Managing Editor of Sports, the football beat reporter and a sports desk editor. George also co-authored The Daily's recent book documenting the rise of Stanford football, "Rags to Roses." He is a senior from Painted Post, NY majoring in Biology. To contact him, please email at [email protected]