Despite a brilliant start, No. 23 Stanford (1-1, 0-1 Pac-12) could not keep pace with USC (2-0, 1-0 Pac-12) and fell 45-20 on the road Saturday night. For the second straight year, Stanford led 17-3, but the Trojans put up 35 unanswered points.
“If we were truly able to make them run… because we were up by three scores instead of two early on, now the complexion of the game changes,” said Stanford head coach David Shaw ’94.
The second quarter began with positive momentum for the Cardinal, who ran fifth-year running back Cameron Scarlett for a three-yard score on the second play to take a 14-3 lead. Scarlett totaled 82 yards on 17 carries for a healthy 4.8 average.
Moreover, the Stanford offense did not have to wait long to return to the field. Velus Jones, who cashed in a kickoff for a touchdown in the USC season opener, fumbled on a hit from junior outside linebacker Thunder Keck. Stanford recovered, sending Mills and the offense back to work. Although Mills missed Parkinson twice, preventing the Cardinal from trying for a touchdown, senior kicker Jet Toner was able to put it through the uprights extending the Stanford lead to its largest, 17-3.
“We had guys open for touchdowns early in the game, and we settled for a couple of field goals,” Shaw said. “Bottom line for us is we got to the red zone five times and came away with two touchdowns.”
From then on, USC outscored Stanford 42-3.
The night was defined by two quarterbacks each making their first career start. The Trojans won the toss, and electing to receive, true freshman Kedon Slovis was the first to make a mark. Slovis completed his first four passes, including a toss to Drake London that went for 45 yards. Unrelenting, the Cardinal defense stalled the USC drive with goal to go, and a Chase McGrath field goal was all the Trojans could put on the board.
Due to the load of Scarlett as the primary ball carrier, Shaw installed junior wide receiver Connor Wedington on the kickoff return team. Newly minted in the role, Wedington returned the first USC kickoff of the night 60 yards to the opposing 35 yard line. Five consecutive calls for Scarlett, four runs and a screen pass brought Stanford to the 14. From there, junior quarterback Davis Mills found Wedington for the first career touchdown pass and reception of their respective careers.
“Our kickoff return game has been really good,” Shaw said. “Our kickoff cover team has been outstanding.”
Mills started the game after senior quarterback K.J. Costello suffered an injury in last week’s Northwestern game.
The Trojans next drive was cut short by a signature pass breakup from junior cornerback Paulson Adebo. Mills was unleashed on the ensuing drive, completing his fourth straight pass to junior tight end Colby Parkinson for 14 yards and the second first down of the drive. A Wedington 17-yard run set the table for Mills to connect with Parkinson once again before the clock ran out on the first quarter.
Parkinson caught a team-high seven passes for 89 yards, followed by Wedington’s five receptions and 67 yards. No other Cardinal receiver caught more than two.
After Toner’s field goal made it 17-3, a quick six-play, 75-yard answer brought the Trojans back within a score. The touchdown came on an over the top ball to Amon-Ra St. Brown for 39 yards.
Poised to answer, Scarlett broke away for a 44-yard run to quickly put Stanford back in business. Attempting to cover Wedington, USC’s Olaijah Griffin was flagged for pass interference to put the Cardinal at the eight yard line. A holding call, however, stalled the drive, and Toner was called on once again.
Keeping it in the air, the Trojans threw on four of the first five plays of the next drive capped by a Tyler Vaughns 29-yard reception. A Slovis run set up a draw play that left everyone in the Coliseum fooled. Stephen Carr took advantage, and walked in for a 25-yard touchdown run.
The highlight of the next Stanford drive was junior receiver Osiris St. Brown hurdling his defender, but the momentum was not sustained. USC cornerback Olaijah Griffin pushed sophomore wideout Simi Fehoko out of bounds in the air to deny the catch and force the punt.
Slovis hit Tyler Vaughns for 31 yards, not shying away from Adebo. Connecting for his 11th-straight completion, Slovis hit Amon-Ra St. Brown, who dove for the pylon and the seven yard touchdown. St. Brown’s 97 yards were the second highest on the night for the Trojans, and his two touchdown receptions marked his first multi-score game.
Up 24-20 at the half, USC’s freshman quarterback completed 17-20 passes for 249 yards, also contributing 16 rushing yards as the Trojans outgained the Cardinal 320 to 213. Importantly, Stanford did not convert on any of its three third down attempts.
Meanwhile, after his hot start, Mills cooled down to finish the half 10-17. Still, with the ball to start the second half, Stanford kept it in the air. After a first down run, Mills dropped back to pass on the next seven plays. The Cardinal used a ten-play, seven-minute drive to reach the red zone, but a few key incompletions impeded a touchdown. From 39 yards out, Toner was called upon for a third field goal, but missed wide left.
“When [the field goal team] goes out on the field we have to get points,” Shaw said.
A fifth-year outside linebacker Casey Toohill sack, the first of the night for the Cardinal, stopped USC on a three-and-out. Adebo was beat on second down, but recovered to nearly intercept Slovis’ pass. In addition to two passes defended, Adebo recorded a team-high eight tackles.
Stanford almost faced the same fate, but Wedington tip-toed the sideline for a 25 yard catch on third down. The possession stalled there, but the leg of Toner, who connected from 51 yards last week, allowed for a 47-yard attempt. The Trojans’ right tackle Austin Jackson got a hand on the kick, blocking the field goal to allow USC to take over on the ball.
An incompletion to start the drive did not deter Slovis, who hit Michael Pittman twice for a combined 52 yards. Vavae Malepeai ran for four yards and a touchdown, which after the extra point gave USC a 31-20 advantage.
Mills found Parkinson on the first play of the fourth quarter, but while targeting the tight end a play later, Mills was intercepted by cornerback Greg Johnson, who jumped the route.
On third down, Carr was stuffed by junior outside linebacker Gabe Reid, but trusting Slovis, the offense stayed on the field and converted the fourth down for 12 yards. Three plays later, the Trojans were in the end zone after a Malepeai six-yard touchdown run.
With its own opportunity for a fourth-down conversion, Stanford went out with a shotgun look, and Scarlett’s run was stopped behind the line. Taking over on downs, Slovis led another touchdown drive, connecting with Vaughns for 16 yards, taking the score to its final: 45-20. The receiver finished with 106 yards on just five receptions.
Stanford led in time of possession for the second straight game, and equaled USC’s 23 first downs, but after amassing 104 rushing yards in the first half, the Cardinal were held to negative four in the second on fourteen attempts. Most importantly, there was limited pressure on Slovis, which allowed the freshman the time to settle in and pick apart the defense.
“It has nothing to do with the Air Raid,” Shaw said. “It has to do with us rushing the passer.”
Sacked just the one time, Slovis completed 28-33 for 377 yards and three scores. On the other sideline, Mills was held to 22-36 for 237 yards with one each of a touchdown and interception.
“I thought [Mills] played well,” Shaw said. “I think he is going to be outstanding.”
In the end, Slovis’ play was so strong, that Matt Fink closed out the game at quarterback for the Trojans. Running back Markese Stepp ran down the clock until USC ended the contest in victory formation.
After losing left tackle junior Walker Little last week, junior right tackle Foster Sarell missed time in this game. Asked after the game, Shaw had no update. Both tackles were replaced on the field by freshmen.
Stanford will hit the road once again for a showdown with UCF (2-0, 0-0 American East) in Orlando next Saturday. Shaw expects Costello to return for the game.