Entering this season, Stanford touted a Heisman-contending running back in Bryce Love, an arm with elite potential in K.J. Costello, and a receiving corps with the size and strength to match up favorably against anyone in the country. The biggest preseason question mark was, supposedly, a young defensive unit with limited game experience.
Two games into the season, that question mark seems to have been answered. The Stanford defense turned in one of its most impressive efforts in recent memory, as the No. 10 Cardinal (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12) stomped to a 17-3 win over No. 17 USC (1-1, 0-1).
Saturday night’s performance was the perfect embodiment of Stanford’s bend-but-don’t-break defensive philosophy. The unit gave up 332 yards on the night, but forced three turnovers and limited the Trojans to two red zone trips amounting to a total of three points.
It was an unusually lopsided result in what has become an intense matchup between the California teams over the last ten years. USC’s three points was its fewest in the rivalry game since 1941.
“It was a physical game. I’ve noticed [the narrative] is the tough guys at Stanford against the athletes at USC. But I think athletically we’re pretty evenly matched,” head coach David Shaw said in his postgame comments.
“The most important things for our defense are playing great on first down, on third down, and in the red zone. And I thought we were pretty good on first down, really good on third down, and great in the red zone. So to keep [USC] out of the end zone and force two field goals and only get one made, that’s a great defense.”
It wasn’t always pretty on the other side of the ball, but running back Bryce Love came alive and the offense capitalized on a few explosive plays to put the game out of reach.
A week after being held to a meager 38 yards against SDSU, Love finished with his night with 136 yards on 22 carries and his first touchdown of the season. A large chunk came on a 59-yard scamper off an outside pitch early in the third quarter that ultimately resulted in a Cardinal field goal.
Stanford started hot on offense, opening the game with an eight-play, 83-yard drive that culminated in a Love touchdown run from six yards out.
From there, the offense stalled out for much of the night. The unit hurt itself many times over with five penalties on first down, leading to consistently long-yardage third downs. Stanford only converted four times on 13 attempts.
The offensive line gave up zero sacks but continued to work out wrinkles and deal with injuries. Starting center Jesse Burkett was held out for the second consecutive game, with Drew Dalman starting in his place. Left guard Foster Sarell, who has split time with Devery Hamilton, was injured early in the second quarter and didn’t return to the game.
With both offenses struggling, it turned into a field positioning battle with a combined 14 punts between the teams. Punter Jake Bailey — who has become an invaluable weapon on special teams for the Cardinal — booted three punts longer than 50 yards, including a career-high 66-yarder.
Costello was a respectable 16-for-27 for 183 yards and a touchdown, with several pretty completions to tight end Kaden Smith, who finished with four catches for 77 yards.
But while the offense threw the occasional hook, the defense delivered the unrelenting body punches that wore the Trojans thin.
The pass rush wreaked havoc and played more consistently than last week, earning four sacks to its name.
The biggest came with a little under a minute and a half to play in the first half, as the Trojans lined up to go for it on 4th and 2 down 7-0 at the Stanford 40. Outside linebacker Joey Alfieri made a move inside unblocked and stripped USC quarterback JT Daniels of the ball, and Bobby Okereke fell on top of it to give the Cardinal possession near the midfield marker.
From there, Costello marched Stanford down the field in five plays and connected with tight end Colby Parkinson on a perfectly thrown and caught fade to make the score 14-0 going into halftime.
The secondary was stellar most of the night and made true freshman Daniels — who joined USC after leaving high school early — look like he still belonged there.
Stanford held Daniels 144 yards on a paltry 45% completion rate until the final five minutes of the game. The Trojans finally managed to put together a cohesive drive and made their way into the end zone down 14 with just over two minutes left to play. But safety Malik Antoine picked off an under-thrown pass in the end zone from Daniels to end any hope of a comeback bid for USC.
It was a triumphant return for Antoine, who was playing his own season opener after missing last week with an injury. The redshirt sophomore added a second interception in the waning moments of the game.
Antoine switched from the cornerback position to safety this offseason, a decision that is paying immediate dividends.
“I think it was a great move for me. I get to communicate more and see the game more,” he said. “It’s all thanks to my coaching staff for putting me back there and letting me make plays.”
Fifth-year senior cornerback Alijah Holder also saw his return to the field nearly 11 months after suffering a gruesome leg injury early last season. Holder and redshirt freshman Paulson Adebo blanketed USC’s talented wideouts for most of the night and look to be a menacing tandem going forward.
In all, the Stanford defense finished with 11 pass breakups and perhaps most impressively, zero penalties.
Next up, Stanford plays host to non-conference opponent UC Davis on Saturday before returning to Pac-12 play. Kickoff is set for a frighteningly early 11 am start next Saturday. The game will be broadcast on Pac-12 Networks.
Contact Neel Ramachandran at neelr ‘at’ stanford.edu.