Everybody was expecting USC to win big on Saturday and snap the streak of closely-contested matchups between the Trojans and the Cardinal in California’s newest — and biggest — rivalry. Turns out they were right — only they got the team wrong.
Instead of a convincing victory for the Trojans, it was a big win for the unranked Cardinal (2-1, 1-0 Pac-12), who stormed the Coliseum, went blow-for-blow with the No. 6 Trojans (2-1, 0-1 Pac-12) for 60 minutes and shocked the nation with a shootout victory over preseason media darling USC.
“In the pregame talk, I had all the guys stand up who had played in Pac-12 title games, and that’s half the team,” said head coach David Shaw. “Our guys are used to playing in big games. We need to act like it and play like it.”
The message was clear: Even though the nation as a whole counted Stanford out after the season-opening loss to Northwestern and were quick to sing the praises of USC in the preseason, the Cardinal — not the Trojans — have been the team to beat in California over the last half-decade, and they came out and played like it on Saturday.
Not to say that makes the win any less significant in the big picture.
In the last 30 seasons, USC has only lost two games as a top-10 team to an unranked opponent at home: “The Biggest Upset Ever” in 2007 and on Saturday — both to Stanford.
Not only that, but it also marked redemption for two of the Cardinal’s key contributors: fifth-year senior quarterback Kevin Hogan, who beat USC for the first time as a starter, and senior kicker Conrad Ukropina, who struggled against USC two years ago but nailed a 46-yard kick to ice the game in the fourth quarter.
“The guys were celebrating after the game, but I reminded them we don’t get a trophy for this one,” Shaw said. “It’s a regular-season game against a conference opponent that we won on the road. That’s great.
“But we get back to work. We can’t do the highs and lows that anyone else does.”
Ukropina’s kick was the exclamation mark on an almost-perfect night in which Stanford’s offense looked unstoppable and harkened back to the days of 2009 and 2010. The offensive line was dominant, and Stanford could gain three yards on the ground at will. Hogan was never under significant pressure all game and made accurate, poised throws. And Stanford’s defense did just enough to hold on for dear life against a USC offense with more talent than it knew what to do with.
Although the Trojans took an early 21-10 lead on a dominant first drive and a pair of passing touchdowns from quarterback Cody Kessler, Hogan led two scoring drives of 84 and 78 yards in the last nine minutes of the half to give Stanford a 24-21 edge with a 17-yard touchdown pass to Devon Cajuste with 0:03 left on the clock.
From there, Stanford held the powerful Trojans to just 10 points in the second half and ran the ball down USC’s throat, punching the ball in twice more on two of senior running back Remound Wright’s three rushing touchdowns on the night. Ukropina’s kick with 2:27 left in the game gave Stanford a two-score lead that it would never relinquish.
“We talked about [the second half] at halftime,” Shaw said. “We’d get their best shot and they stopped us to open the second half and scored. Our guys knew it was coming. We batted down the hatches and got back to work and played great in the second half.”
Under the circumstances and the pressure, it’s quite possible that Hogan’s performance will go down as the best in his career. He outdueled Kessler, a Heisman favorite, with a sparkling 18-of-23 line for 279 yards and two touchdowns. He also surpassed Andrew Luck ‘12 for the most rushing yards by a quarterback in Stanford history and passed Jim Plunkett for No. 4 on Stanford’s all-purpose yards quarterback rankings.
“He was huge,” Shaw said. “Coming off a first game where we didn’t play well and second game where we didn’t start well, we knew we had to come out well against a good team and it starts with your quarterback.”
Hogan found nine different targets for two touchdowns through the air as well, including a career-high four catches by junior tight end Austin Hooper for 79 yards. He also averaged 12.1 yards per attempt, keeping the chains moving through a bevy of intermediate plays, with only one truly “big” play to speak of, a 41-yard completion to Francis Owusu to open the second quarter.
Stanford also imposed its will on the ground, complementing Hogan’s stellar day through the air with 115 yards on 26 carries from sophomore Christian McCaffrey as well as the three touchdowns from Wright. McCaffrey snapped a 16-game streak without a 100-yard rusher for the Cardinal, becoming the first Stanford runner to eclipse the mark since Tyler Gaffney in the 2013 Pac-12 Championship against Arizona State.
“We made sure we stuck to the game plan and executed,” Hogan said. “It’s a nice feeling to go out in the second half and run the clock out, playing our style, running between the tackles and wearing them down.”
Although the defense allowed 31 points and 427 yards to USC’s offense as well as two touchdowns to one receiver for the first time in the David Shaw era (Steven Mitchell, Jr. had two), Stanford’s defense buckled down on big third-down and fourth-down stops when it needed to, especially down the stretch, and forced a turnover on downs with 0:04 left in the game to officially seal the big upset.
Special credit goes to fifth-year senior cornerback Ronnie Harris and freshman nickelback Quenton Meeks, who did a fantastic job in space against USC’s speedy playmakers, and to the defensive line, where only three players rotated all game against USC’s tempo and held firm.
“We came in and said everyone has to do his job,” said fifth-year senior linebacker Kevin Anderson. “We don’t like giving up 31 points to anyone, so we need to go back to work and improve.”
But at least for one day, Stanford doesn’t need to worry about improvement, because Stanford is once again the king of California — and on Saturday, they came, they saw and they certainly conquered.
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dhpark ‘at’ stanford.edu.