LOS ANGELES — USC’s quest to be part of the four-team College Football Playoff took a stunning hit on Saturday. Simultaneously, Stanford made a major bid to infiltrate the top 25 poll.
Those twin acts came into effect after unranked Stanford upset No. 6 USC 41-31 in front of 78,306 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“The guys were celebrating after the game,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “But I reminded them that we don’t get a trophy for this one. 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.”
Stanford began the season with an upset loss at Northwestern but now has defeated Central Florida and USC in consecutive weeks. The Cardinal are 2-1 overall and 1-0 in Pac-12 play. USC (2-1, 0-1) rolled to lopsided victories in its first two games over Arkansas State and Idaho before stumbling in their first conference game.
“The things we talked about being important in the game were important,” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “Like how important it was defensively to force them into third and long, and it didn’t happen as much as we’d like.”
In the age of no-huddle, spread offenses, Stanford is a blast in the past. The Cardinal are Kool Moe Dee and USC is Kendrick Lamar. Old school won out this night as Stanford’s punishing ground game wore down USC and Cardinal quarterback Kevin Hogan made the right decisions on his passes to not only mix well with the run but ultimately keep the potent USC offense on the sideline, where it could do no damage.
Hogan completed 18 of 23 passes for 279 yards and two touchdowns. He also scrambled effectively seven times, including a run of 22 yards when he evaded the USC rush and had lots of open space to run.
“We lost containment too many times,” Sarkisian said.
Stanford had total ball possession for nearly 39 minutes, 29 seconds compared to USC keeping possession for less than 21 minutes. The inability of the Trojans’ defense to get off the field cost USC dearly. Stanford converted 8-of-12 tries on third down. But the real damage was done on first and second down.
Sarkisian said the Trojans’ game plan was to limit Stanford to three yards or less on first down. Instead, the Cardinal often made over five yards on first down, which gave Stanford nice play options for second and third down.
“We had them in situations but we didn’t execute and we couldn’t get off the field,” Trojans junior linebacker Su’a Cravens said. “They kept converting third downs. They were able to make some long drives. It’s hard to stop them.”
Stanford’s scintillating sophomore running back Christian McCaffrey had a big night. Entering the game, McCaffrey ranked 14th nationally in all-purpose yards at 165.8 per game. The son of former NFL receiver Ed McCaffrey carved up the USC offense for 249 all-purpose yards. That included 115 rushing yards on 26 carries.
McCaffrey made a number of big plays during the game, none more huge than the 19-yard screen pass he converted on a third down and seven late in the fourth quarter with Stanford holding onto a 38-31 lead and USC in desperate need to get the ball back.
McCaffrey’s first-down catch and run allowed the Cardinal to erode even more time off the clock and a 46-yard field goal by Conrad Ukropina with 2:27 remaining in the game pretty much clinched the victory for Stanford.
USC quarterback Cody Kessler completed 25 of 32 passes for 272 yards and three touchdowns. His favorite target, JuJu Smith-Schuster had his second consecutive 100-yard receiving game, with eight catches for 153 yards and one touchdown. Redshirt sophomore Steven Mitchell Jr. caught two touchdown passes. The problem was the Trojans had limited possessions.
“It hurt the rhythm a little bit,” Kessler said. “Some drives we had momentum but penalties killed us.”
With the no-huddle scheme that USC runs, the goal for the Trojans is to run at least 80-90 plays per game. USC only ran 60 plays against Stanford, a point Kessler addressed after the game.
“We need to capitalize when we do get possessions,” he said.
The game was back and forth at one juncture, with one tie and three lead changes before a pair of long second-half Cardinal drives, culminating in a pair of 1-yard touchdown runs by Remound Wright, put Stanford in control. Wright in fact completed a trifecta, with 1-yard touchdown runs in the second, third and fourth quarters.
“We felt like we had an unbelievable week of practice,” Hogan said. “Everyone put in extra time in the film room after practice to make sure we were ready to go. We made sure we stuck to the game plan and executed, and 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.”
NOTES: USC started two true freshmen – CB Iman “Biggie” Marshall and LB Cameron Smith. CB Isaiah Langley became the 15th true freshman to play for the Trojans this year. … Ball control was the key for Stanford, which ran 73 plays to USC’s 60 plays. Neither team turned the ball over. There were no fumbles lost or interceptions thrown. … USC’s dual-threat sophomore Adoree’ Jackson had a long kickoff return for a touchdown nullified by a holding penalty. … Stanford senior running back Barry Sanders, the son of Hall of Famer Barry Sanders, gained 12 yards on three carries in limited duty.